WCI, Inc
Sept. 21, 2021

Workplace harassment is still a problem

From sexual harassment to discrimination to racism to power abuse, harassment plagues more than just a handful of employees: It’s pervasive, deteriorates culture and morale, and can lead to psychological discomfort, leaving a job, or lawsuits. Why is this happening? And how can organizations work to prevent harassment before it begins, or hear about issues when they arise? According to AllVoices, the first thing to do is to hear from employees themselves, and their experiences, frustrations, and suggestions.

To that end, AllVoices conducted a survey on July 13, 2021, of 822 American workers. For a survey such as this, it is particularly valuable to know who was surveyed. Before reading on to find the specifics of the results, consider that of the 822 respondents, 52.8 percent were male and 47.2 percent female. The majority (39.3 percent) fall between the ages of 35 and 44, while 22.6 percent are between the ages of 25 and 34, 11.9 percent are under the age of 24, 14 percent are between the ages of 45 and 54, and 12.2 percent are over the age of 54. As for the size of the employer represented, 25.9 percent of respondents work for a small business of 1 to 100 employees; 43.2 percent work for a medium-sized business of 100 to 999 employees; and 30.9 percent work for a large business of 1000 or more employees. The majority (20.6 percent) work in the IT/computer software sector, 10 percent work in healthcare, 8.5 percent work in educational services, and 8.4 percent work in financial services or insurance. While the majority of respondents (44 percent) are mid-level employees, 20.3 percent are entry-level employees and 35.6 percent are senior-level employees. Additional demographic information can be found here.

The survey confirms that harassment in its various forms is affecting nearly half of workers today, creating work environments that are uncomfortable to intolerable. Additionally, over half of employees have been in work environments where they have not felt psychologically safe, which impacts an employee’s ability to share ideas, bring up concerns, or contribute to their workplace culture. Harassment doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is caused by others—managers and coworkers who sexually and physically harass coworkers or employees, bully, discriminate again, abuse their power, and more. And it’s not just limited to the four walls of an office or workplace, but has moved into the world of remote work as well.

Who is being harassed and what form is it taking? According to the survey, 43.8 percent of respondents report that they have experienced some kind of harassment at work, across all sectors and sizes. Senior-level employees who had been at their organization for five years or longer were more likely to have experienced harassment. Male respondents (53.2 percent) report they have experienced harassment at work as have 33.6 percent of female respondents, 43.4 percent of Black respondents, and 46.1 percent of entry-level workers.

In looking specifically at what kind of harassment respondents experienced, the following forms were identified:

  • Personal harassment/in-person bullying (48.6 percent);
  • Discriminatory harassment/bias (43.3 percent);
  • Online harassment/cyber bullying (40.6 percent);
  • Physical harassment (39.4 percent);
  • Sexual harassment (37.8 percent);
  • Psychological harassment/misuse of power (36.7 percent);
  • Abuse of power (35 percent);
  • Gender-based harassment (34.4 percent);
  • Racism (30 percent);
  • Microaggressions (29.2 percent);
  • Socioeconomic harassment (26.1 percent); and
  • Other (5.8 percent).

But this list of harassments wasn't the same for everyone. In looking further at the data, AllVoices found that female respondents had experienced sexual harassment (38.8 percent) and discriminatory harassment/bias (36.4 percent) more. Male respondents had experienced personal harassment/in-person bullying (55.8 percent) and physical harassment (51.1 percent) more. Black respondents had experienced personal harassment/in-person bullying (38.9 percent) and racism (36.1 percent) more. Asian respondents had experienced discriminatory harassment/bias (42.9 percent) and psychological harassment/misuse of power (42.9 percent) more. Entry-level respondents experienced physical harassment and discriminatory harassment/bias (both at 55.8 percent) more. Respondents over the age of 45 experienced personal harassment/in-person bullying (48 percent) and discriminatory harassment/bias and psychological harassment/misuse of power (both at 38 percent) more.

Harassment comes from both managers and coworkers. Where is the harassment coming from? 38.2 percent of employees witness harassment from managers against employees; 36.8 percent have seen harassment happen between coworkers; and 25 percent have witnessed both harassment from managers to employees, and also between coworkers.

Majority have felt psychologically unsafe at work. Feeling comfortable enough to speak up and voice both ideas and concerns without fear of retaliation, attack, or shaming is key for a healthy workplace. However, 52.4 percent say they have been in a work environment where they have not felt psychologically safe. 47.6 percent say they have felt psychologically safe.

In looking further at the data, 43.6 percent of female respondents said they have been in a work environment where they have not felt psychologically safe, as did 60.4 percent of male respondents, 50.6 percent of Black respondents, 48 percent of Asian respondents, 52.7 percent of entry-level respondents, and 63.5 percent of senior-level respondents.

Remote work is not a solution. AllVoices wanted to know what if any impact remote work would have on workplace harassment. According to the survey, 37.5 percent of respondents had still experienced harassment through remote channels while 34.8 percent believe that harassment stopped with remote work. Further, while 40.9 percent of respondents believe it lessened, 7.8 percent believe that harassment got worse with remote work. Those who replied that harassment got worse were more likely to have been at their company for less than six months. Those who replied that harassment continued were more likely to work in educational services.

Addressing issues of harassment. How quickly workplaces act to resolve these issues can help increase employee trust and engagement. However, 53 percent of respondents report that their workplace addresses issues of harassment immediately after they’re reported, but 20.2 percent say that their workplace addresses them eventually (not immediately) and 12 percent say their workplace does not address harassment issues, or addresses them inadequately. A surprising 14.7 percent replied that if their workplace does address harassment issues, they’re not aware of it.

As a result, 34.1 percent of respondents say that they have left a job in the past because issues of harassment were not addressed. However, 25.9 percent say they have stayed at a workplace despite issues of harassment not being addressed and 40 percent remained in the workplace because there were no issues.

Harassment prevention and initiatives. Harassment will thrive if ignored, and will deplete morale, create unsafe working conditions, and will lead to employees leaving, lawsuits, or egregious media attention. This is why workplaces must take an active approach to harassment, by not just normalizing the conversation around harassment, but by encouraging employees to report, and putting initiatives in place to actively prevent harassment before it starts.

The ultimate goal is to prevent harassment before it begins, and 76.9 percent said that they believe their workplace puts in proper measures to prevent harassment. Still, 23.1 percent do not believe there are measures in place and as a result, they were more likely to cite issues of abuse of power and microaggressions as their top experienced types of harassment. Additionally, even though 76.9 percent report that their workplace puts in measures to prevent harassment, 43.8 percent have experienced harassment—which means that for 20.7 percent of respondents, harassment is taking place despite having measures in place to prevent it.

A key approach to preventing harassment includes actively talking about it at staff meetings, trainings, and other places for open dialogue, and implementing initiatives to prevent it. 58.6 percent of respondents said that their workplace does actively talk about preventing harassment, and does put initiatives in place as a result. However, 24.8 percent responded that their workplace does actively talk about it, but they don’t see initiatives being put into place. 16.5 percent said that their workplace does not actively talk about preventing harassment, and respondents don’t see initiatives in place. Those who responded that their workplace does not actively talk about harassment or put measures in place are more likely to have experienced sexual harassment and gender-based harassment and they’re also more likely to work in healthcare.

In terms of who is leading the conversation around harassment prevention in the workplace, 30.7 percent report that HR is taking the lead, while 30.2 percent report that senior leadership is taking the lead. For 19.8 percent, the conversation is led by their direct manager. However, 9.1 percent aren’t sure who’s leading the conversation and 10.2 percent report that no one is leading the conversation. For those who replied that no one is leading the conversation, respondents are more likely to come from IT/computer software, healthcare, and construction.

Reporting harassment in the workplace. If issues of harassment can’t be prevented before they happen, they surely need to be addressed after they happen. But oftentimes they aren’t fully resolved, and oftentimes employees won’t report harassment for various reasons. For those who had experienced harassment, 49.8 percent said they reported it, either to a manager, to HR, or to an ombudsperson or thirty party; 17.6 percent said that even though they experienced or witnessed harassment, they did not report it; and 32.6 percent replied that they have not experienced or witnessed harassment to report.

The top five reasons given for not reporting harassment are:

  1. I feared retaliation (demotion, job loss, gossip, shaming, etc.).
  2. I didn’t believe reporting it would do anything, or I wouldn’t be believed.
  3. I didn’t know if it was a big enough deal to report.
  4. I assumed someone else would report it/didn’t feel it was my place to report it.
  5. I saw how others who reported in the past were treated, so I kept silent.

When they reported harassment, 55.3 percent said they reported it to their manager, 36.4 percent reported the issue to the HR department, and 8.3 percent reported it to an ombudsperson or a third party. Yet respondents who reported their issue to a manager were more likely to see manager-to-employee harassment. This is concerning, as it means that employees may be reporting back to the harasser, or someone on the same level who may also be participating in harassment. Additionally, unless the manager then reports the issue to HR, there may not be a record of the issue ever being reported, as the issue can easily fall by the wayside in a manager’s hands.

Respondents clearly indicated that if they could report harassment in a completely anonymous way, they would be more inclined to do so. 84.5 percent said they would be and only 15.5 percent said it wouldn’t make a difference. The survey found that male respondents (87.3 percent) and senior-level respondents (84.6 percent) were more likely to report using anonymous channels than female respondents (81.4 percent) and entry-level respondents (82.6 percent).

For those who replied that they would not be more inclined to report if an anonymous channel were made available, 37 percent wouldn’t use it because they don’t believe it would be truly anonymous.

Respondents do seem to believe that their employers want them to report incidents of harassment (72.3 percent). However, 27.7 percent replied that they do not believe their employer wants harassment reported. Those who replied that their workplace does not want them to report harassment are more likely to work in educational services, and are more likely to have been at their current employer for five or more years.

When asked what actions employers can take to encourage more reporting, respondents suggested the following:

  • Ensure reporting is anonymous;
  • More user-friendly reporting platform;
  • Encouragement from leadership;
  • More awareness around what harassment is and how to recognize it;
  • Normalizing the conversation at work around reporting harassment;
  • My company committing not to retaliate against employees for reporting harassment; and
  • Having a bystander intervention training.

Resolving incidents of workplace harassment. All reported issues should be investigated, and should be resolved — but are they? Only 53.5 percent of respondents say their reported issue was fully resolved after they reported it. 24.2 percent reported that their issue was partially resolved and for 11.5 percent, their issue was not resolved and no action was taken in regards to it. In examining the data further, only 37.7 percent of female respondents saw their reported issue fully resolved, while 62.4 percent of male respondents saw their reported issue fully resolved. Further, 66.9 percent of senior-level respondents saw their reported issue fully resolved while only 52.1 percent of entry-level respondents saw their reported issue fully resolved.

As is often the case when it comes to reporting issues around the workplace—whether it be harassment, workplace safety, discrimination, and more—there are some employees who are comfortable speaking up, and some employees who are not. What’s worse is that employees who were subjected to harassment now also feel like they can’t speak up for fear of retaliation—that they’ll be harassed for speaking up about being harassed—or that it’s a useless endeavor, since they believe their workplace won’t do anything about it (which seems to be the case, as only half of reported incidents are fully resolved). Or, they fear that their painful or embarrassing experiences won’t be believed.

Ultimately, organizations should want to hear about issues of harassment in their work environment so they can fix it, so that the percentage of employees who believe their workplace wants them to report harassment should be 100 percent.

In conclusion: Listen and believe. Harassment is pervasive, and damaging to morale, productivity, workplace culture, and employees’ futures. Yet not only is harassment allowed to go on, sometimes whole cultures are built around accepting it, or ignoring it when it happens. Workplace cultures can also be built around shaming those who report harassment, too, and forcing employees to either stay silent and work in hostile conditions, or go elsewhere.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, but one of the first steps is not just listening to — and believing — employees, but to value your organization’s health and wellbeing enough to want to hear about issues of harassment. Ideally, organizations will ramp up harassment prevention approaches so that when asked “Have you experienced harassment?” in the future, responses will be “No,” for everyone.

Source: AllVoices.

From WCI's HR Answers Now ©2021 CCH Incorporated and its affiliates. All rights reserved.

Note: WCI provides Harassment Prevention training programs as a member benefit. Call 828-667-3311 for more information.

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