Workplace harassment happens in many U.S. workplaces, but most employees who witness or experience such misconduct do not report it to HR, according to a new report by software company HR Acuity, based in Florham Park, N.J.
In a survey of 2,055 employees, more than half of respondents experienced or witnessed inappropriate or illegal incidents at work in 2023. The most prevalent issues included bullying, sexual harassment, racism, and harassment related to age, gender or sexual orientation.
Yet, just 58 percent of employees who experienced or witnessed inappropriate behavior reported the incident to their employers—a drop from 64 percent in 2019.
"How workplace harassment and misconduct is handled has far-reaching implications to an organization," said Deb Muller, founder and CEO of HR Acuity. "Not only does the level of trust impact how likely employees are to report issues, but it also impacts whether or not they stay with the organization and refer people within their networks to work there."
When employees do report an issue, they typically turn to a manager (61 percent) or to HR (48 percent). A small portion (18 percent) go to senior leadership. Those who experience or witness an issue are less likely to recommend their employer, according to the report:
- If a workplace issue was experienced, only 22 percent of employees would recommend their organization.
- The referral rate jumped to 42 percent among employees whose issues were reported and investigated—exceeding the rate for employees who never experienced a problem.
- If the issue was resolved, 56 percent would recommend the organization.
Slightly more than half of reported incidents (58 percent) result in an investigation. About 21 percent of employees didn't know if an investigation was conducted, suggesting an opportunity for improved follow-up and communication.
Offering an anonymous reporting option correlated to a higher likelihood that employees will report workplace misconduct, according to the study:
- Among employees who know their employer offers a way to report anonymously, 70 percent reported an incident experienced or observed at work.
- When anonymous reporting tools were not available, only 49 percent of employees reported an incident.
- Among employees who do not report an incident of harassment or misconduct, 64 percent are more likely to report if an anonymous option is available to them.
"Having an avenue for people to report is critical, as is having a strong investigation process," Muller added. "These two things have an incredible impact on retention, on bringing the best talent to your organization and your brand."
Tracy Avin, founder of HR education and networking platform TroopHR in New York City, said a strong reporting system in which workers feel comfortable disclosing workplace improprieties can:
- Ensure employees are aware that misconduct is taken seriously.
- Hold violators accountable for their actions.
- Create a safe environment where employees are protected from retaliation for reporting inappropriate behaviors.
- Help encourage employees to report misconduct.
- Foster a culture of trust for employees to feel safe and respected.
"The company may be liable for damages if an employee experiences misconduct and the company did not take steps to prevent or address it," she said. "Your organization may have policies in place, but without an understanding of the proper steps to report it, the misconduct may continue and the employees may feel like they have no recourse."
Paul Wolfe was formerly an HR executive at Indeed, Condé Nast and Match.com. He said that companies must educate the workforce on how to report misconduct during the onboarding process. Employees should also be able to access these steps, via writing and video, at any time to refresh themselves with the process.
"The other step that I have not seen taken, although I think it should, is regular updates from HR leaders about issues, trends, and how they are being handled and addressed," he said. "If employees don't know how to clearly report something, many times they talk to each other and potentially post about the situation on social media."
Avin added that updating the workforce on how to report inappropriate behaviors can help support their psychological safety, which boosts organizational innovation, retention, motivation and accountability.
"Companies should also take steps to prevent misconduct from happening in the first place," she said. "This includes training managers and employees on what constitutes misconduct, creating a culture of trust and respect, and enforcing the company's policy on misconduct."