Combatting sexual harassment at the United Nations

March 14, 2019

News broke on Tuesday 15th January 2019 that one third of UN staff and contractors have experienced sexual harassment in the past two years. While this finding itself is saddening, we at WhistleB find another statistic equally disappointing. Just 17 per cent of those eligible to respond to the survey on sexual harassment did so.

Sexuall harassment UN

Important work to be done in order to combat harassment at the UN

In a letter to staff, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres remarked the following on the response rate:

“This tells me two things: first – that we still have a long way to go before we are able to fully and openly discuss sexual harassment; and second – that there may also be an ongoing sense of mistrust, perceptions of inaction and lack of accountability.”

In this one statement, Antonio Guterres hits on three poisonous factors that allow a culture of harassment to prevail: mistrust, inaction and unaccountability.  It is our strong belief that a secure whistleblowing system has a central role to play in engendering the opposing values: Trust, action and accountability!

How can a whistleblowing system help combat organisational sexual harassment?

Whistleblowing is the term used when a person passes on information concerning wrongdoing, such as harassment. A secure whistleblowing system communicates to employees and other stakeholders… “We have a Code of Conduct which states that we expect those associated with us to behave ethically, and we are serious about following this up.” We’ll highlight this through the three core values that appear to be somewhat lacking within the UN’s culture of harassment.

A whistleblowing system should allow anonymous reporting for whistleblower protection. As we know from experience and as the UN case illustrates, nobody wants to raise the alarm on any kind of harassment or other misconduct if they don’t trust they can do it confidentially, without retaliation. For people to blow the whistle, they also need to trust that they can remain anonymous both in the initial dialogue and throughout any investigation. A secure whistleblowing system enables this.

#Metoo illustrated how sexual harassment has been able to prevail for so long; those women who had been brave enough to blow the whistle were all too often met with inaction. Their complaints were not taken seriously. Not only does a whistleblowing system put action behind an organisation’s Code of Conduct, it is also a tool that can provide whistleblowing champions with an appropriate and structured process for action and investigation. This process of follow-up and investigation of cases should be communicated throughout the organisation so that employees fully understand the action that will be taken against misconduct. In this regard, a whistleblowing system can both increase the chances of people sounding the alarm and make any potential perpetrators think twice about abuse of power.

A whistleblowing system is one channel through which employees can act

While it is ultimately an organisation’s leaders who set the guidelines for ethical conduct, all employees are accountable for stamping out misconduct, and a whistleblowing system is one channel through which they can act. In conjunction with an established Code of Conduct, clear communication about whistleblowing defines unacceptable behaviours and misconduct, such as sexual harassment, that may be grounds for whistleblowing complaints. In clarifying expected behaviours, defining unacceptable behaviours, and providing a place to report suspicions, a whistleblowing system can promote accountability in the workplace, at all levels.

As we’ve said many times, nowhere is free of the risk of misconduct. Even the United Nation, “an organisation founded on equality, dignity, and human rights” has been unable to prevent misconduct. No organisation can be complacent, every organisation should encourage whistleblowing as a tool against sexual harassment.


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