This post is the third in a three-part series on workplace harassment, including how widespread it is, what impact it has on employees and employers, why it’s under-reported, and what steps organizations can take to address it. If you’d like to discuss our survey findings, please send us an email.
The first post in this series looked at how common workplace harassment is; this post confronts why it goes under-reported. A 2016 meta study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggests that 70% of workplace harassment incidents are never reported to employers, whether through management or HR, ethics hotlines, or other channels. This reporting gap is a big deal for employers’ ability to prevent harassment. After all, as management consultant Peter Drucker apocryphally said, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t management it.” In the harassment context, that adage means employers cannot address past incidents if they don’t know who engaged in harassing behavior, and they can’t deter future misconduct if individuals believe they’ll get away with it.
Closing that data gap requires thinking about what causes it in the first place. With that goal in mind, Ekdesk commissioned a national survey of U.S. workers at employers with >100 employees (a population of ~80M workers). The results show that key barriers to reporting include fear of retaliation, anxiety over participating in an investigation, and doubt over whether an employer would do anything about a complaint.
Question: If you've personally experienced harassment in the workplace and didn't report it, which of the following were reasons for not reporting?
Let’s unpack these results. Why do these doubts and anxieties motivate employees not to report when they’ve experienced harassment?
1. I didn’t believe the reporting system was truly anonymous.
Employees may doubt that their confidentiality will be protected when they report, leading to fears of retaliation or reputational harm. They may also doubt that anonymous channels, such as ethics hotlines, are truly anonymous and that complaints cannot be tied back to them.
2. I didn’t want to describe or write about my experience.
Reporting through existing channels requires employees to put into words what they experienced. This requirement discourages reporting because of its potential to embarrass or upset the reporter. Potential reporters may also fear that the details in a report, or even a unique writing style, may “give them away.” More, potential reporters may have experienced conduct that falls into a grey area or that they don’t want to relive. As a result, they may be uncomfortable making factual assertions about the nature of an event or describing it in their own words.
3. I feared retaliation.
Around 75% of employees who experience and report harassment go on to face some form of retaliation. As the #MeToo movement has shown, in the case of serial harassers, one or two people breaking their silence can enable others to come forward. Yet although there is strength in numbers, a person who experiences harassment has real and reasonable fears about being the first (and perhaps the only) person to report it
4. I didn’t want to be involved in an investigation.
Reporting harassment can be a double harm–the experience itself and the HR investigation that follows. The investigation process, including being interviewed and being exposed to personal scrutiny, is a stressful experience for anyone. The risk of information leaking from an investigation and leading to retaliation is also real. Many employees may thus decide that it’s better to let past harassment go, or to endure continuing mistreatment, rather than go through the reporting and investigation process.
5. I wasn’t sure if I actually was harassed.
Ditto #2 above.
6. The harassment wasn’t severe enough to report.
Ditto #4 above.
7. I didn’t want to get the person who harassed me in trouble.
Some employees may worry about getting the people who harassed them in trouble. A harasser may serve as a valuable mentor or sponsor at work, for example, or the employee who experiences harassment may worry about the impact on the other’s family if workplace misconduct comes to light.
8. I didn’t want to describe or write about my experience.
Ditto #2 above.
9. I felt even if I reported, nothing would be done.
The most common reason respondents gave for not reporting harassment was doubt that reporting would lead to the problem being fixed. This belief may mean that an employee doesn’t trust management’s commitment to address these issues or to hold all employes (including top performers) accountable to workplace standards. It may also reflect a lack of follow-up communication with workers about the outcomes of their complaints, including when HR or management cannot substantiate allegations.
These results point to key reasons for the substantial data gap when it comes to workplace harassment. These reasons are not insurmountable, and neither is the workplace harassment reporting gap. In the final post of this four-part series, we will explore best practices for tackling workplace harassment, including the use of data analytics to close the data gap.
Survey Methodology: This survey was conducted by Survata, an independent research firm in San Francisco. Survata interviewed 413 online respondents between August 09, 2018 and August 30, 2018. Respondents were reached across the Survata publisher network, where they take a survey to unlock premium content, like articles and ebooks. Respondents received no cash compensation for their participation. More information on Survata’s methodology can be found at survata.com/methodology.
About Ekdesk: Ekdesk provides software and services for creating equitable workplace. Its products include Case Manager for documenting workplace issues, Sonar for detecting, deterring, and measuring workplace harassment, and Diamond for identifying untapped internal talent.