Held to account: Exploring accountability for harassment in the workplace

Dr Galina Goncharenko discusses how to make organisations more accountable for workplace abuse.

The #MeToo movement highlighted the widespread nature of harassment in all its forms and prompted demands from the public to make organisations more accountable for workplace abuse. Responding to these calls, and applying the rigour of her accounting background, Dr Galina Goncharenko began to explore perceptions of accountability and the development of mechanisms to hold organisations to account.

Engagement as a research method

The innovative project employed user engagement as a way of uncovering important issues and finding solutions. In November 2019, Galina invited a group of non-academic partners to debate the issues of workplace misconduct at an ESRC Festival of Social Science event – #MeToo: A journey towards a harassment-free workplace – in November 2019. The panel comprised experts from local and national organisations, including Sussex Police, Martin Searle Solicitors, The Pensions Regulator, the Survivors’ Network and the Fawcett Society.

Galina explains the value of this approach: “By bringing people together in a space where they were willing to express their views – unhindered by major interference from a researcher – we unearthed a rich discourse that revealed the complexities surrounding the issue.”

A multidisciplinary approach

The event had the added advantage of encouraging collaboration among stakeholders from very different disciplines – legal, psychological and technological. “Engaging with people from a range of professional backgrounds can help to understand complex issues when there is no straightforward solution,” says Galina. “Research can facilitate this process. All the approaches to tackling this issue are equally important and will only work in synergy.”

“When a social movement like this happens, everyone has strong views. I tried to create a setting where everyone would feel comfortable to engage in a discussion, but there will always be different viewpoints due to people’s own experiences and backgrounds. This is a sensitive topic – not very typical for accounting research!”

Together with the group of non-academic partners, Galina went on to develop a best practice guide for organisations, outlining various approaches to halting the abuse of power.

Using technology to report harassment

Building on this work, Galina’s most recent research engagement projectThe impact of harassment reporting technology on organisational accountability and psychological safety in the workplace – aims to inspire change in organisational practices and culture.

“It can be challenging for victims of harassment to use traditional ‘old-fashioned’ HR reporting practices,” explains Galina. “They could feel embarrassed and uncertain about how the complaint will be received, especially given the power imbalance that is so often part of harassment cases. This means harassment frequently remains underreported. Fortunately, we’ve recently seen the creation of a new market for digital harassment reporting tools, which can make it easier to report all forms of inappropriate workplace conduct.”

These new technologies not only help victims to share their experiences, but can also speed up investigations, improve the quality of evidence and enable better lines of communication.

As part of this project, Galina has set up an online professional community, known as Empowering Workplaces, to bring together the organisations that are developing harassment reporting technology with those which are beginning to use it. “We hope to build a community of practice to share learning and facilitate the effective use of technology,” says Galina. “We will also meet with partner organisations to co-produce effective practices and disseminate our findings through webinars.”

Key participants from the ESRC event, including Brighton & Hove City Council and Sussex Police, are taking part in this project and are beginning to implement these reporting tools in their workplaces.

Accountability within NGOs

Galina is currently studying how the #MeToo movement prompted interest in the accountability of NGOs for the abuse of power and sexual exploitation of field workers in developing countries. For this project, she is using netnography – a form of social media analysis rooted in ethnography. This involves analysing relevant discussions and comments on social media platforms, identifying diverse opinions and uncovering key patterns and themes.

“The preliminary findings reveal that, as an outcome of the #MeToo movement, NGOs’ supporters have started to pay close attention to the ethical aspects of NGOs’ performance and activism,” Galina explains. “This will require the sector to prepare to make significant transformations.”

The importance of psychological safety

One important concept highlighted by Galina’s research is the notion of psychological safety as a measure of organisational performance. “The creation of psychologically-safe and respectful working environments is vital,” says Galina. “A lack of psychological safety in organisations generates fear and prevents employees from being effective, resourceful and creative.”

As companies are already required to report on physical safety of their employees, Galina believes that this type of reporting could in future be extended to cover psychological safety.

The road ahead

The initial publicity around the #MeToo movement prompted many companies to rethink their approach to handling abuse and misconduct – making structural changes and even investing in reporting technology. But Galina is clear that technical innovations alone won’t eradicate harassment from the office.

As well as new reporting tools, Galina believes that a transformation in workplace culture and practice is needed. Organisations need to raise awareness, listen to their staff, and implement innovative approaches to preventing and tackling abuse. These changes take time. “We are at the very start of this process,” says Galina. “It’s an exciting and positive journey but there is still a long way to go.”

Photo of Galina GoncharenkoAbout the researcher

Galina Goncharenko is a Lecturer in Accounting at the University of Sussex. She holds a PhD in Accounting (2016) and an MSc in Economics and Business Administration (2013) from the Norwegian School of Economics. Her research interests include accountability for abuse of power in the workplace, accountability discourses on social media platforms and accountability of advocacy NGOs and social movements.

Find out more

#MeToo: A journey towards a harassment-free workplace: https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/policy-engagement/a-journey-towards-a-harassment-free-workplace/

Goncharenko, Galina (2019) The accountability of advocacy NGOs: insights from the online community of practice. Accounting Forum, 43 (1). pp. 135-160. ISSN 0155-9982

Ongoing project: https://digit-research.org/research/related-projects/the-impact-of-harassment-reporting-technology-on-organisational-accountability-and-psychological-safety-in-the-workplace/