Combating workplace wrongdoing has been an ongoing battle.
Today, companies are being held to much higher standards to address what’s going in their company cultures. The #MeToo movement exposed the need for transparency and accountability, the Black Lives Matter movement surfaced issues of racial inequality and injustice, and the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way people think about a healthy, safe work environment.
Companies can no longer ignore or hide instances of wrongdoing when they arise. Unaddressed issues can not only damage trust and morale internally, but can damage the brand externally, leading to unwanted media coverage, lost revenue, and even litigation.
Which is why it’s more crucial than ever that companies have a comprehensive view of what’s going on in their workplace — harassment, bias, bullying, fraud, unsafe work conditions, and more — so that they can proactively work to prevent wrongdoing before it happens, or respond quickly to wrongdoing if it happens.
But are companies actually receiving the feedback and reporting they need to combat these issues? Do employees feel comfortable and safe enough to report wrongdoing when they see it? Are companies doing all they can to provide resources and ways to report to their employees?
Or are companies failing their employees and letting wrongdoing go unchecked?
We wanted to find out the answers to our questions to see if employees truly are being supported and encouraged to report wrongdoing when they see it. If they’re not actively reporting wrongdoing, we wanted to know why.
On March 8, 2021 we surveyed 1,000 US workers who are currently employed full-time to learn more about their experiences with witnessing and reporting workplace wrongdoing.
Here are some of the key findings from our respondents around issues in the workplace:
Workplace wrongdoing is still going unreported. 26.5% of all employees say they have never reported wrongdoing when they’ve seen it. 35.5% of entry-level employees say they haven’t reported.
One in five reports are being ignored. 19% of wrongdoing was not addressed after it was reported, and 33% of reports were partially resolved.
Why don’t employees report? Because they believe nothing will be done. They also don’t report because they fear they won’t be believed, or fear retaliation for doing so.
60% of Black women who don’t report say they didn’t because they won’t be believed. 44% of Black employees overall and 37% of women overall also don’t report because they think they won’t be believed.
Making it anonymous would increase reporting. 70% say they would be more likely to report if there was a truly anonymous method.
But only 63% believe their workplace wants them to report. 21% believe that their workplace does not want them to report wrongdoing. The rest weren’t sure what their workplace wanted.
Only half of employees have resources available to them. 56% are clear on what resources are available to them and how to access them, but the rest are not.
Ways to increase reporting? Anonymity, ease of use, and leadership involvement. Employees say that reporting will increase if companies provide anonymous ways to do so, user-friendly reporting platforms, and encouragement from leadership.
On March 8, 2021 we surveyed 1000 US workers who are employed full-time, to learn more about their experience with seeing and reporting workplace wrongdoing.
57% of those we surveyed were female, and 43% were male. The majority of our respondents fell between the ages of 35 and 44 (40.6%), with the next largest segment between ages 25 and 34 (27.7%). 6.4% were between the ages of 18 and 24, 13.4% were between the ages of 45 and 54, and 11.9% were over 54.
The majority of our respondents (40.4%) work at medium-sized businesses with between 100 and 999 employees, and 36.7% work at large businesses with over 1000 employees. The remainder (22.9%) are employed by or run small businesses, with 100 or fewer employees.
Our respondents come from a variety of industries, with some of the largest being IT, educational services, professional and business services, and state and local government. “Other” included a large representation of healthcare and other health-related fields.
50.1% of our respondents are mid-level, meaning they most likely have reports and report to others. 26.8% are senior-level employees, and 12.4% are entry-level.
Over half of our respondents — 63% — are managers overseeing other people at their workplace.
When asked about personality type, 52.9% responded that they are introverts, with 34.9% responding that they are extroverts.
Finally, we wanted to know their longevity. 39.8% replied they had been in their current companies for five years or longer, and nearly the same amount (41.2%) replied they had been in their company between one and five years. Only 11.4% had been there between six months and a year, and 7.6% had just started.
This may seem like straightforward employment data, as our respondents work in a variety of sectors, at a variety of job levels, and have had varying lengths of time at their employer.
But that’s what we wanted: A slice of typical work life to glimpse how everyday employees react to the wrongdoings they see around them. Additionally, size of the workplace, seniority, longevity, and even personality type may affect how and if they report wrongdoing in their workplace. Finally, since our sample size is significant at one thousand participants, we know that the insights we received are going to be significant, relevant, and impactful.
Do employees feel safe reporting wrongdoing at work? Or are they hesitant to do so? Are they even seeing wrongdoing to report? We wanted to know what the average employee’s experience is with seeing wrongdoing at work, and if they’ve ever reported it. We found that while workplace wrongdoing is happening, company leadership may not be getting the full picture.
Ideally, every instance of workplace wrongdoing would be reported. Companies should want to be aware of what issues are making employees feel uncomfortable or endangered, and employees should feel safe and encouraged to report issues they see. But unfortunately, that’s just not the case.
Nearly half of our respondents — 45.2% — replied that yes, they have reported workplace wrongdoing at least once when they’ve seen it. 28.3% replied that they haven’t seen any wrongdoing to report.
But 26.5% replied that while they have witnessed workplace wrongdoing, they didn’t report it. This means that employers are unaware of over a quarter of workplace wrongdoing happening at their company.
26.5% is the response across the entire population of respondents. But when looking at some sub-groups, the numbers vary. Women who have not reported are similar at 26.7%, and so are introverts (25.1%) and extroverts (26.7%). The number of those who haven’t reported lifts a bit for workers below age 34, at 28.5%.
But where that number really shifts is with entry-level employees. 35.5% — much higher than the standard — replied that they have witnessed workplace wrongdoing, but have not reported it. This is compared to senior-level employees, where only 20.5% — much lower than the standard — replied they hadn’t reported wrongdoing.
If they had reported an instance or pattern of workplace wrongdoing, what was the outcome? The majority of those who reported (39.4%) stated that the matter had been fully resolved. Yet 33.4% — nearly as many — reported that the matter was acknowledged and partially resolved. 3.3% stated that the matter was not resolved, but they believe their company is working on it.
18.8% reported that the matter wasn’t even addressed, much less resolved. While the reporter took the initiative to alert the company, the company didn’t act. This means that issues are going unaddressed, which could lead to low morale, people leaving their job, or litigation. It also sends a message to employees that it’s not worth reporting, because nothing will happen. This could also apply to the 33.4% of partially resolved issues as well.
5.1% of those who reported the wrongdoing also said that reporting it made the matter worse.
If we look at these metrics just for women, the majority (34.5%) found that their matter was only partially resolved, with 32.4% seeing a full resolution. But the number of respondents who said that the matter was not resolved and no action was taken jumps to 23.1% (over the 18.8% from the general population). Additionally, for 6.7%, reporting made the matter worse.
Entry-level employees actually saw more full resolution (50%) when they reported, despite being less likely to report. But 20.5% said their reported matter was not even addressed, and a large number — 13.6% — replied that reporting made the issue worse.
For those who witnessed wrongdoing and did not report it, we wanted to know why. For the majority who didn’t report (30.5%), they didn’t believe that reporting would do anything (we saw above that many times, nothing is done), or that they wouldn’t be believed.
Of the other reasons for not reporting, 27.8% feared retaliation in the form of a demotion, job loss, gossip about them, or shaming. 25.9% didn’t report because they didn’t know if the matter was big enough of an issue to report. 23.7% didn’t report because they didn’t think it was their place to. 15% didn’t report because they had seen how others who reported were treated in the past, so they stayed silent.
While these are for the general population, when we dig into subsets of respondents, the numbers and reasons change.
For women, those who didn’t report because they didn’t think it would do anything, or didn’t think they would be believed, jumps to 36.8%. The second biggest reason (28.3%) is because they didn’t know if it was a big enough issue to report, and 27.6% feared retaliation or job loss.
For Black employees who didn’t report, the number jumps to 43.8% who didn’t think their reporting would do anything or didn’t think they would be believed (the number leaps to 60% with Black women). 37.5% feared retaliation or job loss, and 25% didn’t know if it was a big enough issue to report.
For entry-level employees, their main reason for not reporting was fearing retaliation (29.6%). 25% felt it wasn’t their place to say anything, and 25% didn’t report because they saw how others were treated negatively after reporting.
Interestingly, senior-level employees also feared retaliation, more so than entry-level employees (27.3%). 25.5% also didn’t report because they didn’t think it would do anything, or that they wouldn’t be believed.
When asked about which types of workplace wrongdoing our respondents would likely report to their company, we found that employees were highly likely to report fraud (57.4%). They were also highly likely to report unsafe working conditions (52.6%).
But when it came to interpersonal wrongdoing, 50.6% were highly likely to report harassment, 48% would report discrimination, and 47% would report bullying. Only 29.6% said they were highly likely to report bias if they saw it.
However, when it came to what types of wrongdoing employees actually see at work, the list reverses. Bias is at the top, with 34.3% reporting they’ve witnessed it, followed by bullying (26.5%), discrimination (24%), and harassment (21%). Only 20.3% of respondents report seeing unsafe work conditions, and only 13.6% report seeing fraud — the issue employees said they’d be most likely to report.
Taken with the last question, we can draw this conclusion: Employees are more likely to report on wrongdoings they see the least, and less likely to report on wrongdoings they see the most.
In looking at ways to increase reporting and to reduce the fear of retaliation, we wanted to know if they would be more inclined to report if reporting were made anonymous at their company. 70.1% replied that yes, they would. 17% weren’t sure if they would be more likely to report issues, and 12.9% said no, they would not be more likely to report issues.
While 70.1% is for the total population, we found again that the responses increase in different segments: women would be 71.4% more likely to report if it was anonymous, and Black employees would be 72.1% more likely. Entry-level employees would be 72.6% more likely, and entry-level combined with mid-level would be 73.9% more likely. Finally, introverts — which make up over half of our respondents — were 74.9% more likely.
Every company is required to provide some means through which employees can report, and while it doesn’t have to be, it’s traditionally been a telephone hotline or number employees could call. We wanted to know if our respondents were aware that their company even provides a hotline.
43.9% said that their workplace did have that resource, but 35.8% said that their workplace did not. A large percentage (20.3%) reported that they weren’t sure, which signals that upwards of one-fifth of workplaces are not making mandated resources widely known to their employees.
Despite the availability of the hotline, 67.8% report that they have not used it to report wrongdoing. 32.2%, however, have used the hotline. Additionally, women were less likely to use the hotline (21% have), as opposed to 45.9% of men who have.
Of those who have witnessed workplace wrongdoing and did not use the hotline to report it, we wanted to know why. The majority felt they wouldn’t be truly anonymous if they used the hotline (23.4%). Many also didn’t want to speak to someone over the phone to report (15.8%). A few stated that they wouldn’t report the wrongdoing anyhow, even with the presence of a hotline (5%).
What we’ve discovered here are some very stark trends around reporting wrongdoing in the workplace.
27% of employees who have witnessed wrongdoing in the workplace — whether it be once or habitual — said they’ve never reported it. The main reason it isn’t being reported is that employees think nothing will come of it — and many who have reported wrongdoing in the past experience no action taken.
Others don’t report wrongdoing because they fear they won’t be believed. Still others don’t report because they’re afraid they’ll be demoted, lose their job, be the subject of gossip, or even shamed by their co-workers or managers.
This is again reinforced when asked what employees are likely to report: fraud or unsafe work conditions — which are rarely seen in the workplace — but not instances where their coworkers are getting discriminated against or treated with an unfair bias. Could this be due to the fact that reporting stolen money and dangerous conditions are valued differently than reporting harassment and bullying?
When it comes to wanting to report workplace wrongdoings, employees are more inclined to do so when they know they’re anonymous. But many aren’t even aware of the proper channels to go through to report, and they’re skeptical if those channels are truly anonymous.
But the main concern remains not with an individual’s ability to report, but with the culture the organization is building around reporting, which we’ll look at in our next section.
When it comes to reporting, companies need to play their part, too. Ultimately, it’s up to the organization to lead the conversation around reporting, to encourage reporting, and to take action when issues arise. But unfortunately organizations may be sending the wrong messages — or no message at all.
Ideally, workplaces should want to know if any harassment, bias, bullying, or other wrongdoing that would make employees feel threatened or uncomfortable is happening so they can stop it.
But that’s not what employees are sensing. Only 63% of respondents believed that their workplace wants wrongdoing reported. 21.2% replied that they believe their workplace does not want wrongdoing reported and is encouraging silence — which would contribute to employees being hesitant to speak up. 15.8% actually weren’t sure, which means that their workplace isn’t sending clear communication on whether they want wrongdoing reported or not.
We wanted to know what our respondents thought would be best for them and their colleagues in terms of encouraging reporting. Again, ensuring anonymity came in the highest at 58.1%. Employees also wanted a more user-friendly reporting platform (40.7%). Employees also believed that they would benefit from more encouragement from leadership around reporting (40.1%).
Additional responses include normalizing the conversation at work around reporting wrongdoing (38.1%), more awareness around what wrongdoing is and how to recognize it (35.7%), and having the company commit to not retaliating against employees for reporting (36.5%).
Some of the responses in “Other” include having more emphasis on how wrongdoing affects employees, showing how morale is impacted when nothing is done, holding people more accountable, and having real consequences for wrongdoing.
We wanted to know if companies are making general resources about wrongdoing readily available to their employees. 55.9% replied that yes, they did know about available resources. But 24.5% said that their employer does not make resources about wrongdoing available to employees. An additional 19.6% didn’t know if resources were available or not.
Considering that most workplaces are legally obligated to provide these resources to their employees, there’s a communication piece that’s missing.
Finally, we wanted to know who at the company is leading the conversation around workplace wrongdoing. For 35% of respondents, it was HR, and for 23.5%, it was senior leadership. Having the conversation led from these two sources shows a company- and culture-wide approach.
But for others, it was neither HR nor senior leadership, but their own direct manager. While direct managers have an important job influencing the culture of their team, this signals a lack of company-wide messaging if they leave it up to the departments to implement. Finally, 9.9% didn’t know who was leading the conversation, and 16.4% replied that no one was.
As we’ve seen in this report, sometimes companies are addressing workplace wrongdoing, but sometimes they’re not. Sometimes employees feel comfortable reporting, and sometimes they don’t. Some workplaces are offering the right resources and support, and some do not. And some workplaces are having leadership lead the conversation around reporting wrongdoing, and some aren’t.
But this isn’t a situation where “some” is good enough. When it comes to retaining talent, fostering productivity, and becoming known as a great place to work, organizations should want to do everything they can to be aware of wrongdoing that’s going on and to take steps to end it.
The movements of the past few years, and the trend in companies being more transparent and active around implementing their values at work is causing more companies to explore better ways of listening to their employees. But sometimes just listening isn’t enough, and companies need to take active measures to ensure that everyone’s voice is being heard in order to create a safer, more enjoyable workplace.