A survivor wants to step forward — they have been harassed or discriminated against by an employee of your venture capital firm and decide it’s time to formally report what happened. Who do they reach out to? And what happens next?
Because VC firms have not provided roadmaps for reporting, entrepreneurs facing harassment or discrimination have had had two options historically: keep quiet or tell a reporter.
These options were unfavorable to both founders and VCs. Most founders chose to stay silent over dealing with the press. When founders did speak out, VCs faced public backlash.
2017 was a landmark year for this in the venture community, with dozens of founders boldly speaking out and VC firms scrambling to address issues. Big name investors Justin Caldbeck, Chris Sacca, Dave McClure, Steve Jurvetson and Shervin Pishevar were named for bad behavior, which resulted in their expulsion from their firms. And it became clear that a better reporting process was required.
Within a few months, #MovingForward took shape and encouraged VCs to start designing internal mechanisms by which entrepreneurs could report incidents to firms directly. We have now seen 135 VCs around the world set up their own reporting contacts — people or parties designated as the first touchpoint for complaints about harassment, discrimination, and other unwelcome behaviors at VC firms. A reporting contact’s job is to ensure a smooth and fair reporting process, and to help make sure all parties are heard.
Reporting contacts have a challenging role. First, they must model fairness, accountability, and transparency in the face of what is often a new reporting process. They will be looked to as masters of the firm’s policies and systems, ready to explain what will happen step-by-step at each stage of reporting. They are also expected to bring clear understanding of which behaviors are prohibited vs allowed by the organization’s harassment and discrimination policies, and they should be able to provide illustrative examples of behaviors within and outside acceptable bounds. Finally, the reporting contact should prevent retaliation where they have the power to do so, or document and report it where they don’t.
Though the reporting contact role is crucial, little has been written in regards to best practices or strategies for choosing and training the right person for the job. This post will walk through the qualities of a good reporting contact, specify ways to set this person up for success, and elucidate best practices for putting reporting contacts in place at your firm.
A reporting contact’s job is to ensure a smooth and fair reporting process, and to help make sure all parties are heard.
Qualities of a good reporting contact
As your organization looks to choose a reporting contact, consider selecting for the following qualities:
Reporting contacts must have a squeaky clean reputation, both historically and within your firm. This doesn’t just mean having no sexual harassment complaints against them; any complaint about this person, whether from internal employees or external collaborators, is a warning sign. You and all employees should feel confident in this person’s credibility, both morally and internally within your organization.
2. Available and responsive
If the reporting contact is frequently out of office or slow to respond to emails and other inquiries, they likely are not the right person for the job.
3. Strong communication skills
Reporting contacts need to be capable of navigating sensitive topics and delicate, at times confrontational conversations. An empathetic listener and smooth communicator will be most effective in the role.
4. Record-keeping skills
The best reporting contacts are thorough and meticulous record-keepers. Everything about a complaint needs to be documented, and unfortunately the ball is dropped too often. Your organization will be best served by selecting for a good record-keeper up front.
Outsiders need to know that if they contact this person, the organization will take the complaint seriously. This can be signaled by designating a reporting contact who is visible both in and outside of your firm: someone with real authority and decision-making power.
Note: Don’t assume that the one female or underrepresented minority on your leadership team is the right person for this role by default. Depending on the firm’s culture, women and URMs may already need to battle bias internally and externally to be perceived as authoritative — and authority is essential to performing this job well. Furthermore, underrepresented leaders are often saddled with work like this, and they face penalties for undertaking it . Think twice before assigning them the role, but welcome them if they volunteer, as many may find them more approachable based on their connection as members of underrepresented groups.
Setting reporting contacts up for success
The reporting contact has been chosen, and more likely than not this will be their first time in a role like this. How can you prepare them to succeed?
1. Update job descriptions
Incorporate reporting contact responsibilities into an employee’s job description where possible, and make sure that their performance in the reporting contact role is considered in promotion and compensation decisions.
2. Provide firm specific policy training
Every reporting contact should be thoroughly trained in the organization’s policy and its specific requirements for their role. This means understanding where their role starts and stops, and how it liaises with management/partners, HR/People Ops, lawyers, investigators, etc. Reporting contacts should also have a firm grasp of when they are required to kick off a formal reporting process vs when they can keep their involvement informal. This should all be specified in policy (see our advice for articulating informal processes in policy) and then clarified through exploring various examples with a reporting contact in training.
3. Provide confidentiality training
All inquiries should be kept confidential. What are your organization’s confidentiality standards? Are there occasions when confidentiality should be breached? The reporting contact should understand who within the organization can and should be pulled into inquiries, and on what timeline. They should also consider what needs to happen if confidentiality is breached for any reason. They must communicate confidentiality standards with those involved in an investigation and set expectations around when confidentiality can and cannot be maintained.
4. Educate on relevant laws
Reporting contacts need to be familiar with laws at the local, state, and federal levels, and these laws change frequently (multiple changes a year in some states). It is crucial that reporting contacts start out with a strong baseline knowledge of existing laws, and that they learn about updates to these laws over time.
5. Practice active listening and crisis intervention
Reporting contacts need to be prepared to handle severe crisis situations. They will be called to listen to and internalize stories from all sides, and required to speak without placing blame or jumping to conclusions. Skills in active listening and crisis intervention will equip them to do this.
6. Study bias
It’s helpful for reporting contacts to read and research perceptions and experiences of all forms of bias, as bias affects inquiries from all sides. Start with the National Women’s Law Center’s recommended practices for when a high-profile individual is accused of sexual harassment, and their analysis of sexual harassment charges filed by working women. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultancies like ReadySet offer targeted, specific trainings on these topics, which we recommend for anyone stepping into the reporting contact role.
7. Be aware of conflicts of interest
Because reporting contacts need to handle complaints about their colleagues coming from outside parties, conflicts of interest are inevitable. Reporting contacts need to be familiar with the concept of conflict of interest, and they should be given guidance and strategies for navigating conflicts of interest up front.
Reporting Contact Best Practices
1. Have more than one reporting contact
Again, for most people serving in a reporting contact role, this is not their profession. There is a real danger something can go wrong, even with a strong reporting contact who brings good intentions. It is important for the individual reporting contact and your firm as a whole to have checks and balances built-in. Creating a system that ensures that the point of contact is truly accountable for their actions will protect everyone.
Mechanisms for checks and balances we recommend are: i) having more than one official reporting point of contact assigned, ii) engaging a third party (which can be in addition to internal resources) so that local biases don’t taint the outcome of the process. tEQuitable and Callisto are two third-party reporting platforms we recommend. And iii) training all managers and executives to handle reports. Employees and third parties may report problems or harassment to a manager or executive they know first, so training leaders to be knowledgeable in this area is crucial.
2. Have the reporting contacts listed publicly
Reporting contacts serve third parties outside your organization, so their contact details should be accessible to outsiders — as should the organization’s policy or code of conduct. We suggest listing this information on your website, and on VentureMovingForward.org: a central directory of reporting contacts and policies for the venture industry.
3. Have mechanisms to report anonymously
Numerous studies offer reasons why people don’t report experiences of harassment or discrimination, including fear that they won’t be believed, fear that they will be blamed, fear that they will experience retaliation, and more. Many victims feel safer knowing that they can report an experience that happened to them anonymously. We recommend putting systems in place that empower these victims, like an option to report via an anonymous form submission or via a third party reporting partner that doesn’t require a name.
4. Have mechanisms for oversight
Don’t forget to imbed accountability into the reporting process. Evaluate your process periodically to ensure the reporting contact has followed protocols. It’s counterintuitive, but an initial increase in reporting might actually mean that the designated reporting contact and process are working, since most incidents of sexual harassment go unreported.
If you’re a VC firm with a reporting contact whose name and information are public on #MovingForward, thank you. If you haven’t yet, but you’re ready to commit to a more positive environment for your entrepreneurs and portfolio companies, you can join #MovingForward here. Over 135 VCs and 20 countries strong, we are united in our commitment to make venture more diverse, inclusive, and free from harassment.