Employees want to engage in a safe and happy workplace, and HR wants the same thing for them. Yet in my ongoing interactions with both employees and HR teams, I’m finding a disconnect on how to achieve that dream.
HR departments have their employee’s best interests in mind, which includes uncovering workplace issues and addressing them, and HR departments believe they’re exhaustive in their approach to doing so. They believe that they’re asking for feedback at the right frequency through channels that employees want to use, and also believe that employees are telling them honestly about any concerns or issues.
Yet in all of our reports to date, we’ve found that many employees are holding back. They aren’t comfortable reporting through the channels HR gives them. Many aren’t saying anything at all. And many don’t trust HR to the extent that HR departments think they do.
That’s why we conducted this survey: To find out more about employee perceptions of HR, and how they interact — or don’t interact — with them. The goal is to expose some of those misalignments so that both HR and their employees can work to build trust between one another, and build a happy and healthy workplace together.
On February 28, 2022, we surveyed 1002 full time employees in the US that work at companies with 100 or more employees, to find out more about their trust in HR, how they prefer to communicate with HR, how the power has shifted in the workplace, and whether they’re being truly honest when they’re providing feedback (the answer is: they’re not).
We hope this report will illuminate some of the shadowy areas of how and why employees give feedback, and open up more areas for conversation, improvement, and increased trust.
Here are the most impactful insights we learned from the employees we surveyed:
Employees perceive HR as focused on employee administration, and as being “helpful.” They see the major goals of the HR department being focused on employee administration, mediation, and employee development. They also see HR as “helpful,” “informative and communicative,” and “passive.”
HR is mostly asking for feedback quarterly and monthly. HR is asking employees for feedback either quarterly (18%) or monthly (18%). However, 17% said they’re never asked for feedback at all.
84% of employees had at least one concern to share with HR in the past year — but didn’t share it. 48% of respondents had five or more issues they wanted to share, but didn’t do so.
Only 47% are fully honest when giving feedback to HR. Those who don’t share honest feedback say they fear retaliation if they were truly honest, and that they don’t believe their organization really wants truly honest feedback.
56% of those who aren’t fully honest would be more inclined to be if given a truly anonymous way to give feedback. Additionally, if employees could choose the way they give feedback to HR, they would do so through anonymous surveys.
Employees are feeling more empowered today than one year ago. 55% feel more empowered today to share feedback than they did a year ago, and 58% feel more empowered to leave their job today than they did a year ago
Employees would take action if their company was sued. 50% of employees would make an effort to leave their company if it was sued for sexual harassment. Additionally, 57% would no longer be interested in applying at a company if it was sued for sexual harassment
The newly-passed “#MeToo Bill” will encourage speaking up. 43% of employees said if they were the victim of sexual harassment or assault, they would be more likely to come forward after seeing the #MeToo bill passed. Additionally, 44% would be more likely to report internally after seeing the #MeToo bill passed.
In order to provide greater context around these findings, here are more details on who we surveyed and the methodology used. Starting on February 28, 2022, we surveyed 1002 full time employees in the US that work at companies with 100 or more employees. The survey was conducted online via Pollfish using organic sampling. Learn more about the Pollfish methodology here.
Now, with context around who our respondents were — full-time employees at companies with 100 or more employees, most of whom are mid-level and have been at their company for over a year — let's take a closer look at what we uncovered.
Every employee will come in contact with the HR department multiple times in their tenure at a company, and will likely hear from them at all-staff meetings, receive news and information from them on company policy, be asked by them to fill out a pulse or engagement survey, go to a training hosted by them, and have other touchpoints with them. Employees who manage other employees will especially have close contact with members of HR as well. We wanted to understand a bit more about how employees view HR, what they believe the role of HR is, how often they engage with HR — and if they’re honest when they do.
HR departments play a role in every organization. But what role do they play as perceived by employees? We found that employees primarily see their HR departments as being in charge of employee administration (52.8%). HR hires new talent, processes departing employees, manages employee benefits, and oversees other administrative tasks.
Employees also see HR as being a mediator (39.4%), facilitating issues or disputes within departments or between staff members, and working to solve work environment concerns. They also see HR as focused on employee development (38.6%), providing career advising and opportunities to employees, and team development trainings.
Fewer employees see HR as focused primarily on regulatory management (36.8%), or staying up-to-date on laws that may affect the company and employees. Fewer also see HR as focused on company culture (36.6%) by fostering employee engagement, and rolling out perks and other culture boosters. The fewest number of respondents see HR’s role being focused on reputational management (33.6%), or protecting the company from legal or media issues.
In continuing to understand employees’ perceptions of HR, we wanted to know what sentiment from a list provided comes to mind when employees think about HR.
The largest segment (29.2%) said that HR is helpful. Whether their experience with HR was training or onboarding, hiring for their department, or navigating other employee questions, they see the HR team as providing help, assistance, and guidance when needed.
Next, respondents said that HR is informative and communicative about workplace issues (19.5%). They may receive a weekly or monthly HR newsletter with helpful information in it, or regularly hear from HR members at team meetings about important workplace issues.
However, the same amount of respondents (19.5%) said that HR is passive. They state that they’re aware that their company has an HR department, but they’re not sure what the HR department does. They’re not seeing HR proactively reaching out or getting involved, and will likely only appear when needed.
Additionally, 16.3% found HR to be unhelpful. Respondents said that they found HR to be unresponsive, or didn’t help with a workplace situation they encountered. This is quite different from simply being passive, in that these respondents saw HR as actively being difficult to work with.
Finally, the smallest segment believes that HR is at the forefront of employee initiatives (15.6%), and playing a very proactive role in their organization.
In order for HR to actively be aware of the workplace environment and how to best assist employees with concern, they need to gather feedback. How often does HR ask employees to give feedback on their workplace experience?
For most of our respondents, HR is asking them either quarterly (18.2%) or monthly (18.1%) for feedback, which is quite frequent and actively gathering feedback about the workplace experience.
However, the next largest segment (17.1%) stated that their HR department has never asked for feedback.
For 16.6%, their HR department asks for feedback sporadically. For 15.4%, their feedback request comes annually. Finally, for 14.8%, HR is asking for feedback weekly.
For those in the last question who view HR as “passive” or as “unhelpful,” it’s no surprise that their top answer is that their HR has never asked for feedback. However, for those who see HR as “helpful,” their HR is asking for feedback monthly.
When HR does reach out for that feedback, are our respondents honest with what they’re telling them? Not quite, as less than half of respondents (46.9%) say that they are 100% honest with HR when giving feedback. 21.2% admitted that they are not honest with HR when giving feedback.
However, about one-third (32%) responded “Sometimes — it depends,” and that their level of honesty is based on the medium through which they’re sharing feedback.
For example, they may be more honest with HR through an anonymous survey and less honest with HR if asked for feedback face-to-face. Additionally, for this segment, they mostly view HR as “passive,” and say that HR has never asked them for feedback — no wonder they’re hesitant to give feedback.
Of those who replied “No” or “it depends” to the question above about not sharing 100% honest feedback with HR, we wanted to know why they’re not. What were the biggest factors holding them back from being honest about their workplace concerns or suggestions?
The largest segment (24.6%) replied that they don’t share completely honest feedback because they fear retaliation for doing so, like a demotion, job loss, gossip, or shaming. This likely means that they’ve seen others around them share feedback and experience retaliation for doing so, so they’re opting to stay silent.
They’re also not sharing honest feedback because they don’t believe their organization really wants 100% honest feedback (20.9%) — which could link to the aforementioned perceptions of HR being passive, and those who have never been asked for feedback. The third segment (19%) doesn’t share honest feedback because they don’t believe that anything would be done about it if they shared, meaning they or other colleagues have likely shared feedback that was never addressed in the past.
They also don’t share because they assumed someone else would share the concern instead, or didn’t feel it was their place to share (18.1%). Finally, they don’t share because they felt like their feedback wasn’t “big” enough or important enough to share (17.5%).
For those who are reluctant to share 100% honest feedback (“No”), or who will be more or less honest depending on the platform being used (“It depends”), what about reporting anonymously? Would they be more honest if they could report their concerns through a method that was truly anonymous and could not be traced back to them? Over half (56.2%) said yes, they would be inclined to be more honest in that situation. 43.8% replied no, saying they still wouldn’t feel they could be fully honest reporting.
Of those who said they do not give honest feedback above (“No”), only 46.2% said yes, they would be more honest with an anonymous method. However, of those who replied “It depends,” 62.8% said yes, they would be more honest with an anonymous method — meaning that a truly anonymous method would change an “It depends” answer to “Yes.”
What is an employee’s perception of HR? They see the three major goals of the HR department being focused on employee administration, mediation, and employee development: taking care of the hiring and firing, managing benefits, resolving issues between colleagues, and providing career guidance. They also see HR as helpful, informative, and communicative — yet also passive.
If one of the roles the HR department plays is mediator, then they need to know what issues or concerns employees have about their workplace. This is done by gathering feedback from employees, which HR departments are typically doing quarterly and monthly. However, 17% of respondents said that they’re never asked for feedback, meaning that their organization is missing out on learning more about what’s going on in the workplace, or doesn’t want to know.
HR departments are only able to address issues when they know about them. Yet only 47% of employees are giving truly honest feedback when they’re asked for it. Why is the other half holding back? The number one reason was fear of retaliation, or fear that if they do tell HR what’s going on, they’ll suffer consequences for it in the form of not being considered a “team player,” deliberate withholding of job duties, or being the subject of gossip. Feeling like they can’t give truly honest feedback is fostering a culture of silence — and we’ll see this played out further in our next section.
Do employees trust their HR department? Some do, and see HR as helpful and proactively reaching out to gather feedback. And it’s likely that employees who HR has gained the trust of are more likely to give honest feedback. Others, however, seem not to trust HR, evidenced by their reluctance to entrust HR with honest feedback.
Is there a solution? Over half (56%) of those who haven’t typically provided honest feedback said they would be more inclined to do so if they were given a truly anonymous way in which to do it.
What’s clear from the last section is that most HR departments are asking for feedback from their employees on issues in the workplace, suggestions for improvement, or other thoughts employees want to report. Yet what’s also clear from the last section is that employees aren’t necessarily telling HR everything that’s going on in the workplace. In this section, we wanted to find out how employees view different feedback methods HR offers, and how they would prefer to communicate with HR if they could do so on their terms.
Were there any times over the past year when our respondents wanted to share feedback with HR — about anything — but didn’t? 84.1% said yes, that there was at least one concern, issue, or question they wanted to go to HR with, but didn’t. Only 15.9% said they either didn’t have anything to go to HR with, or had something and did go to HR.
Here’s the breakdown of how many times our respondents want to share feedback with HR, but did not:
If we take those who on more than twenty occasions wanted to share information but didn’t, and look back at the reasons why they don’t share honest feedback from Part 2 for this particular segment, we find that the reason isn’t because they fear retaliation. It’s because they didn’t believe anything would be done about their feedback and that they don’t believe their organization really wants honest feedback (tied for percentage). In other words, employees are staying silent because they feel like giving feedback is useless, and companies who don’t address feedback or send the message they don’t want it are actively silencing feedback — and a lot of it — from being reported.
Most organizations have an open door policy, which encourages employees to drop in through a manager’s open door to discuss any issues. What types of issues would employees use an open door policy for? We asked them to choose each purpose they felt applied.
Most respondents see an open door policy as being used for minor, day-to-day issues and inconveniences, like coworker disagreements, minor safety issues, general workload, and stress concerns (56.5%). Next, they see it as being used for mid-level issues and incidents, like a few instances of microaggressions, bias, or unfairness, or unresolved safety issues (50.1%). Finally, they also see it as a place through which to report major issues and incidents, like fraud or theft, malpractice, unethical behavior, or sexual harassment (42.4%), though most view it as a channel for minor or mid-level issues.
Each organization is required by law to have a whistleblower hotline, through which employees can report any issues or wrongdoings they see in their organization. What do employees really see a whistleblower hotline being used for, and does it align with HR’s expectations? We asked them to choose each purpose they felt applied.
Our respondents see the purpose of a whistleblower hotline as a way through which to report all concerns. They see it mostly as a place through which to report mid-level issues and incidents, like a few instances of microaggressions, bias, or unfairness, or unresolved safety issues (48.6%). They also see it as a place through which to report major issues and incidents, like fraud or theft, malpractice, unethical behavior, or sexual harassment (48.1%). They also see it as a place through which to report minor, day-to-day issues and inconveniences, like coworker disagreements, minor safety issues, general workload, and stress concerns (44.2%), though most view it as a channel for mid-level or major issues.
While companies are required to have a whistleblower hotline in order for employees to report issues, are employees confident that they’ll be reporting issues anonymously — which is a key driver in for truly honest feedback, as we saw above? Not quite, as 54.4% of respondents do not believe that a whistleblower hotline is truly anonymous. Only 45.6% believe that it is.
84.1% of respondents having issues to share with HR yet not sharing them may mean that they don’t have a way to proactively reach out to HR with concerns, or a way they’re comfortable with. If employees could choose how they wanted to submit their feedback and concerns to HR, what would their preferred method be? Here’s what they responded, in order:
If you need to break it down in text: Anonymous surveys (20.6%), Face-to-face (13.3%), Email (12.8%), Non-anonymous surveys (8.2%), At a virtual meeting (8.2%), Non-anonymous online form (8%), Direct phone call (8%), Anonymous hotline (7.6%), Text message (7.2%), or a company chat option like Slack or Teams (6.3%)
Of those who said they would prefer anonymous surveys, 57.3% were female and 42.7% male, while of those who prefer face-to-face, 59.4% were male and 40.6% were female. In other words, female employees preferred anonymous ways to report, while male employees preferred giving feedback in-person.
In continuing to examine how employees perceive HR and whether they trust their HR, we’re faced with a concerning statistic: 84% of employees had at least one issue or concern to share with HR in the past year, yet they didn’t share it. Why not? If we look to the last section, we see that those who don’t share honest feedback aren’t doing so for fear of retaliation. We also found that those with twenty or more issues to share mostly didn’t do so because they believed nothing would be done about it, or that their organization doesn’t want feedback in general.
But part of this 84% also includes respondents who said they share fully honest feedback with HR all the time. Perhaps they only do so only when HR asks. These answers suggest that when employees have issues or concerns they want to bring up to HR, they either stay silent, or, more likely, they don’t have a way to reach out to HR, or a way in which they feel comfortable and protected. HR has a way to reach out to them via feedback surveys, but it seems that the communication only goes one way.
This is why we asked the final question in this section: “If you could submit feedback or concerns to HR in any way, which would be your preferred method?” While respondents do see whistleblower hotlines and open door policies as a way to raise issues, the most popular method would be through anonymous surveys. This signals that the surveys they receive right now are not anonymous, and is probably why they’re holding back honest feedback, or aren’t giving feedback at all.
Having anonymous surveys available is also consistent with what was found above, in that 56% of respondents who don’t give truly honest feedback are more likely to do so via an anonymous channel. Also, considering that 54% of respondents do not believe that a whistleblower hotline is truly anonymous, it’s worth setting up truly anonymous channels through which employees can report. If anything, offering anonymous channels will begin to build trust and rapport between employees and HR.
Over the past few years, the workplace has certainly been disrupted. The #MeToo movement has encouraged victims of harassment to speak out, revealing to the public what was once contained behind closed doors. The Black Lives Matter movement has challenged workplaces to take a serious look at their diversity and inclusion efforts. A global pandemic forced offices to close and organizations to be creative with their work-from-home option. Finally, the Great Resignation is evidence that employees are rethinking how they want to work and who they want to work for. With all these changes, we wanted to gauge how the power has shifted from employers to employees.
A lot has changed in terms of power shifting to the employee in the workplace. As such, we found that over half (55.2%) of respondents say that they feel more empowered to share feedback with their employer than they did only one year ago. 44.8% said they do not feel more empowered to share feedback.
When it comes to changing their role, 58.4% said they feel more empowered today to leave a job they dislike than they felt one year ago. 41.6% said they don’t feel more empowered to leave a job.
Compared to a year ago, and in response to these societal changes, how have employees seen their HR evolve in their frequency of gathering feedback and the action they’re taking on that feedback? Our respondents have seen various proactive and inactive approaches from their HR departments.
The largest segment (21.4%) actually saw no change in their HR department’s feedback approach, saying that they see them gathering the same amount of feedback as a year ago, and taking the same amount of action or less than a year ago.
However, for 19.9%, they’ve seen their HR department gathering more feedback now and taking more action than a year ago, signaling an increase in proactivity on the part of HR. They not only want to know more about what’s going on in the workplace environment, but want to address issues before they get out of hand.
For 17.8%, they see them gathering more feedback now, but taking the same amount of action or less than a year ago.
Others see HR gathering the same amount of feedback as a year ago, but taking more action (15.2%), see HR gathering less feedback than a year ago, and taking the same amount of action or less than a year ago (14.3%), and see HR gathering less feedback than a year ago, but taking more action (11.6%).
When it comes to shifting power in the workplace, the majority of employees are taking more ownership around what they want their workplace to look like, and what they want their work life to look like. This is evidenced by the 55% of employees who feel more empowered to share feedback, perhaps inspired by those who have publicly shared their stories about workplace discrimination and harassment. Additionally, 58% feel more empowered to leave their job today than they did a year ago, possibly due to these bigger societal issues forcing them to really evaluate where they want to spend their time and exert their efforts.
A positive is that the second largest segment of respondents said that they’ve seen their HR department gathering more feedback now and taking more action than a year ago. However, that second largest group was only 19% of the total. Most others saw their HR department either gather the same amount of feedback as in the past, or more feedback, but take the same amount of action as in the past, or less action. By not gathering feedback and not acting on it, organizations are risking ignoring issues that may escalate into larger problems — like public lawsuits.
Issues within a company that escalate to lawsuits don’t just affect the parties involved — and don’t often stay quiet.
Companies who aren’t proactively addressing workplace concerns that could escalate to public lawsuits might not fully be ready for the reputational damage it will do. What kind of impact would a public lawsuit make on how employees think about their company?
Additionally, what impact is the newly-passed “#MeToo Bill” having on employees, and will it change their thinking about coming forward if they experience harassment?
What is the impact of a sexual harassment lawsuit on the rest of the employees, outside of the parties involved? When we asked respondents if they would begin to make efforts to leave their company if it was publicly sued for sexual harassment, half (50.2%) said yes, they would.
In our recent survey on “HR and the Great Resignation,” we found that HR leaders say it costs between $61,000 and $80,000 to replace an employee. If a lawsuit hits and an organization loses half of their employees because of it, that’s not only a massive hit to staffing, but a massive hit to the bottom line as well.
Similarly, we asked respondents to tell us if they were applying for a job at a company, whether they would be interested in joining that company if it was publicly sued for sexual harassment. 56.7% said they would no longer be interested in joining that organization. Therefore, organizations who are hit with a lawsuit may not only lose current talent, as seen above. They have the potential to lose a lot of future talent as well, and see their pipeline dry up.
On February 7, 2021, the U.S. Senate passed a landmark employment bill, the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act. This bill is known more informally as the “#MeToo Bill.” This legislation prevents the enforcement of mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts for sexual harassment cases — in other words, it bans clauses in employee contracts that force victims of sexual assault and harassment into arbitration alone, and allows them to choose between going to court or entering into arbitration to resolve their case.
In light of this legislation, 43.6% of respondents said they would be more likely to come forward publicly if they were the victim of sexual harassment or assault, if they knew they could take the case to court and not be forced to arbitrate. Additionally, 35.6% said that they wouldn’t know how they would respond unless they were in the situation, but may be more likely to come forward with this legislation in place.
Similarly, 44% of respondents said they would be more likely to report a case internally if they were the victim of sexual harassment or assault, if they knew they could take the case to court and not be forced to arbitrate. Additionally, 31.7% said that they wouldn’t know how they would respond unless they were in the situation, but may be more likely to report internally with this legislation in place.
We see here the dangers of ignoring workplace issues that could’ve been addressed very early on in the process, if the right feedback measures were in place.
For example, let’s go back to the 84% of respondents in Part 3 who wanted to bring something to HR but didn’t. Imagine that one of those respondents witnessed an employee say something to another employee that could be considered sexual harassment. Because that respondent feared retaliation, or didn’t have an anonymous method through which to report the issue, they waited. Maybe other employees witnessed the same behavior, but, like the rest of the 84% in Part 3, also didn’t bring it to HR, and maybe thought that nothing would be done about it anyway. The behavior continues to escalate without HR really knowing about it, and if they’re only asking for feedback annually, then there’s twelve months during which this workplace issue continues to fester. Suddenly — but not really suddenly — a victim goes public and the organization finds itself in the midst of a lawsuit. And because of it, 50% of that organization’s current staff begins to pack up their offices, and 57% of job seekers pull their applications from that organization. What would’ve happened if that one employee at the beginning did have a method to report that they felt comfortable with and trusted would keep them protected?
With the passing of #MeToo Bill, those who do file a sexual harassment claim will no longer be forced into arbitration, letting the company decide the recourse rather than the courts. We found that, again, employees are feeling more empowered in their role to speak out with this new bill in place. Knowing now that they could receive justice in a court, 43% said they would be more likely to come forward publicly if they were the victims of sexual harassment, and 44% said they would be more likely to internally report if they were the victims of sexual harassment. The #MeToo Bill hasn’t just changed the way victims can get justice, it will encourage other victims to speak up as well.
Employees trust HR — at least some of them do. Many employees have had positive experiences with their HR departments, where HR has helped them with their needs, has actively communicated about employee issues and company policies, and has reached out frequently for feedback. In these instances, it’s probably very easy for employees to trust their HR department with honest feedback, knowing that HR will take it seriously and address the issues.
However, what about those who don’t trust HR, or who haven’t seen HR involved enough in their workplace to have any thoughts about them? What about those who don’t give honest feedback, believing that their HR department won’t do anything about it or, worse, doesn’t want it in the first place?
Members of HR are dedicated to their employees, and want to ensure that their employees have positive and uplifting workplace experiences. Whether in the former or the latter group, HR departments can always seek to grow trust and foster relationships with the employees in their organization.
At AllVoices, our mission is to help build safe and happy workplaces for both the employee and the employer, and we work with HR departments a lot to achieve that goal. If you’ve read these findings and are wondering what to do next, here are some actionable steps.
Because of the misconceptions — and fears — that employees have in regards to human resource departments, being transparent about what HR does and how they function to support and help employees is important. This can easily be done by broadcasting departmental goals, sharing general employee feedback that had been received, and the resulting actions that the HR department took in response to this feedback. Communicate through a newsletter, at a town hall meeting, at team meetings, and through other creative means. If one of the perceptions above about HR is that it’s “passive” and that employees aren’t sure what HR does, this will help clarify the message in a proactive, informative way.
For employees who are unsure or hesitant to approach HR, giving them a friendly face that they recognize and can get to know will help ease the hesitation.
Make a strong effort to network with other departments, throw mixers, and send out “Meet the Team” emails that include your photo in your email signature. As many HR leaders have shared with us, making the HR department seem more “human” is helpful and fun.
You don’t want the first time a new employee meets or hears from HR to be when a negative situation arises. Integrate HR into being a part of your company’s onboarding process, and expand their role out from just being the team that sends the offer letter. This can be with a one-sheeter about how HR can support them, a Q&A with an HR employee, a campus tour, a lunch and learn about the company hierarchy, or any other initiative.
As we found above, 56% of employees would be more honest if they knew their feedback could not be traced back to them in any way. Additionally, 54% of employees don’t believe that whistleblower hotlines are truly anonymous. In order to source and act upon honest and truly actionable feedback, provide employees with a platform they trust and will use.
Because of the Great Resignation, COVID-19, the #MeToo Bill, and other societal impacts, employees are feeling more empowered than ever to speak up, leave their jobs, or share their negative experiences publicly.
But these changes require adjustments, and as the world of work is changing, the role of HR departments have changed drastically, too. Don’t remain stagnant or the aforementioned “passive,” and make any and all necessary adjustments to stay flexible and current as an employer of choice.
Employees want to engage in a safe and happy workplace, where they know their concerns are being heard and where negative issues are dealt with. HR has the ability to create that positive and happy work environment — but only if they are truly committed to listening to employees, and overcoming barriers to that reluctance to speak up. With the answers and insights in this report, we know the journey towards achieving that safe and happy workplace is possible.