The State of Workplace Harassment 2021

20 Min Read
AllVoices
September 1, 2021

Introduction:

High-profile issues of harassment in workplaces seem to be hitting the news every week. But what about the issues of harassment that employees face every day, workers who pause with fear or anxiety before they step into their office or log onto their computer, concerned about what’s going to be said to them or about them, or what will be done to them?

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? The first thing to do is to hear from employees themselves, and their experiences, frustrations, and suggestions — and that’s what we did. We asked employees across all sectors and job levels to learn more about their experience with harassment, why many of them are reluctant to report, and what practical approaches workplaces can take to combat harassment today.

Methodology:
On July 13, 2021, we surveyed 822 Americans who are employed full time. The survey was conducted online via PollFish.com using organic sampling through Random Device Engagement (RDE). To access the raw data, click here. Learn more about the Pollfish methodology here.

Key Findings

Here are the top findings we found in our survey about workplace harassment:

44% have experienced harassment at work. They’ve experienced personal harassment and bullying, discriminatory harassment and bias, and online harassment and cyber bullying.

38% still experienced harassment remotely, through email, video conferencing, chat apps, or by phone. Additionally, 24% believe harassment continues or gets worse through remote work channels.

53% say their workplace immediately addresses harassment. However, 12% see no action from their workplace, and 14.7% aren’t aware of any action taken. Additionally, only 54% of respondents have had their issues fully resolved.

34% have left a job because of unresolved harassment issues. 26% have remained at a workplace despite there being ongoing issues of harassment.

Only 50% have reported harassment. 18% said that even though they experienced or witnessed harassment, they did not report it. They didn’t report it for fear of retaliation, that nothing would be done about it, or that they wouldn’t be believed.

85% are more likely to report harassment if they have an anonymous channel. Additionally, respondents believe that they and their coworkers would be more encouraged to report with an anonymous reporting tool or platform.

Only 72% believe their workplace wants harassment reported. 28% say their workplace does not encourage employees to raise issues of harassment.


Table of Contents

Part 1: Profile of Who We Surveyed

Part 2: State of Workplace Harassment

Part 3: Harassment Prevention and Initiatives

Part 4: Reporting Harassment in the Workplace

Conclusion


Part 1: Profile of Who We Surveyed

We surveyed 822 Americans who work full-time (41.4% hourly, 58.6% salaried).

52.8% are male, and 47.2% are female.

The majority (39.3%%) fall between the ages of 35 and 44. 22.6% are between the ages of 25 and 34, and 11.9% are under the age of 24. 14% are between the ages of 45 and 54, and 12.2% are over the age of 54.

25.9% work for a small business of 1 to 100 employees; 43.2% work for a medium-sized business of 100 to 999 employees; 30.9% work for a large business of 1000 or more employees.

The majority (20.6%) work in the IT/computer software sector, 10% work in healthcare, 8.5% work in educational services, and 8.4% work in financial services or insurance. The remainder fell throughout a variety of other sectors.

20.3% are entry-level employees, 44% are mid-level employees, and 35.6% are senior-level employees.

Finally, in terms of how long they’ve been at their current company, 11.8% have been there for less than 6 months, 12.9% have been there between 6 months and one year, 35.6% have been there between one and five years, and 39.7% have been there for five or more years.

Part 2: State of Workplace Harassment

Workplaces should be environments where employees can feel comfortable to go to, feel safe and encouraged to share their ideas, and feel excited to do their best work. But unfortunately, harassment at work is a very real reality, and an employee’s productivity, comfort, and safety can be destroyed in a hostile work environment. We wanted to understand from our respondents what their experience is with harassment in the workplace.

44% have experienced harassment at work

To start with, we wanted to know how many respondents have experienced any kind of harassment at work related to race, gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic class, or other factors. 43.8% report that they have experienced some kind of harassment at work, across all sectors and sizes. 56.2% say they have not.

Senior-level employees who had been at their organization for five years or longer were more likely to have experienced harassment. 33.6% of female respondents replied they had experienced harassment at work, as had 53.2% of male respondents, 43.4% of Black respondents, and 46.1% of entry-level workers.


They’ve mostly experienced personal harassment, discriminatory harassment, and online harassment

In looking specifically at what kind of harassment our respondents experienced, we asked them to choose all that applied. The top answers were:

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

But this list of harassments wasn't the same for everyone. In looking further at our data, we found that female respondents had experienced sexual harassment (38.8%) and discriminatory harassment/bias (36.4%) more.

Male respondents had experienced personal harassment/in-person bullying (55.8%) and physical harassment (51.1%) more.

Black respondents had experienced personal harassment/in-person bullying (38.9%) and racism (36.1%) more.

Asian respondents had experienced discriminatory harassment/bias (42.9%) and psychological harassment/misuse of power (42.9%) more.

Entry-level respondents experienced physical harassment and discriminatory harassment/bias (both at 55.8%) more.

Respondents over the age of 45 experienced personal harassment/in-person bullying (48%) and discriminatory harassment/bias and psychological harassment/misuse of power (both at 38%) more.


48% have witnessed others experience harassment at work

48.4% report also having seen others experiencing harassment in the workplace. Similar to above, respondents tend to be senior-level employees who have been at their organization for five or more years. 51.6% have not witnessed harassment.


Harassment comes from both managers and coworkers

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


52% have not felt psychologically safe 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% say they have been in a work environment where they have not felt psychologically safe. 47.6% say they have felt psychologically safe.

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


38% still experienced harassment remotely

We wanted to know if harassment would cease with remote work, or if it would unfortunately continue. 37.5% of respondents said that they had still experienced harassment through remote channels. 62.5% had not.


24% believe harassment continued or got worse with remote work

Did our respondents believe that harassment in general continues with remote work, or stopped? 34.8% believe that harassment stopped with remote work. 40.9% believe it lessened. 16.5% believe it continued. 7.8% 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.


53% see workplaces immediately address issues of harassment, while 12% see no action

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


34% have left a job because of unresolved harassment issues

With nearly half of our respondents having experienced harassment, we wanted to know if they had taken action and left a position because of it? 34.1% of our respondents say that they have left a job in the past because issues of harassment were not addressed. However, 25.9% say they have stayed at a workplace despite issues of harassment not being addressed. 40% have remained in a workplace because there were no issues.


Section Summary

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, as we found, 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.

While 34% have left a position due to ongoing unresolved issues of harassment, 26% have stayed in the environment despite the ongoing presence of harassment around them — which can crush productivity, morale, engagement, and even the desire to want to go to work each day.

In our next section, we’ll investigate what workplaces are doing to prevent harassment before it happens.


Part 3: 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. But are companies doing so?


77% believe their workplace puts in measures to prevent harassment

The ultimate goal is to prevent harassment before it begins, and 76.9% say that they believe their workplace puts in proper measures to prevent harassment. Still, 23.1% do not believe there are measures in place..

Those who said their workplace does not have measures in place to prevent harassment more often cite issues of abuse of power and microaggressions as their top experienced types of harassment from the list above.

Additionally, even though 76.9% report that their workplace puts in measures to prevent harassment, 43.8% have experienced harassment — which means that for 20.7% of respondents, harassment is taking place despite having measures in place to prevent it.


59% say their workplace actively talks about and has initiatives around harassment prevention

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% say that their workplace does actively talk about preventing harassment, and does put initiatives in place as a result. However, 24.8% responded that their workplace does actively talk about it, but they don’t see initiatives being put into place. 16.5% say 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 from the list above. They’re also more likely to work in healthcare.


64% say their workplace makes resources about harassment available to them

63.5% replied that their workplace does readily make resources available about harassment to their employees. 18% say that their employer does not, and 18.5% are not sure if their employer makes resources available to them.

Those who reported that their workplace does not provide resources, or aren’t sure if they do, are more likely to have experienced gender-based harassment and abuse of power from the list above.


HR and senior leadership are taking the lead on the conversation around harassment

In terms of who is leading the conversation around harassment prevention in the workplace, 30.7% report that HR is taking the lead, while 30.2% report that senior leadership is taking the lead. For 19.8%, the conversation is led by their direct manager. However, 9.1% aren’t sure who’s leading the conversation and 10.2% 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.


Section Summary:

While it seems that many organizations are working to address harassment before it starts by actively talking about it in the workplace, and putting initiatives in place to raise awareness and encourage reporting, there’s still room for improvement in many of them.

We found that 23.1% of respondents do not believe their workplace takes measures to prevent harassment, 36.5% say their workplace does not provide resources about harassment, or they’re unaware of them. And while 16.5% report that their workplace does not talk about nor puts initiatives in place for prevention, 24.8% say that their workplace talks the talk of harassment prevention, but doesn’t walk the walk.

In our next section, we’ll examine how employees go about reporting the harassment issues they see — and why they often don’t.


Part 4: 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. We wanted to know more about reporting hesitations, how our respondents would feel more inclined to report, and if they even believe their workplace wants issues of harassment to be reported in the first place.

50% have reported harassment

For those who had experienced harassment, did they report it? 49.8% say they have reported it, either to a manager, to HR, or to an ombudsperson or thirty party. 17.6% said that even though they experienced or witnessed harassment, they did not report it. 32.6% replied that they have not experienced or witnessed harassment to report.

20.9% of female respondents experienced harassment but didn’t report it, as did 14.8% of male respondents, 21.6% of entry-level respondents, 19.3% of Black respondents, and 12% of Asian respondents.


They don’t report because they fear retaliation, or that nothing would be done about it

What was the rationale behind why those who experienced or witnessed harassment didn’t report it? Here are the top reasons:

  • I feared retaliation (demotion, job loss, gossip, shaming, etc.) (24.1%)
  • I didn’t believe reporting it would do anything, or I wouldn’t be believed (21.4%)
  • I didn’t know if it was a big enough deal to report (18.6%)
  • I assumed someone else would report it/didn’t feel it was my place to report it (13.1%)
  • I saw how others who reported in the past were treated, so I kept silent (11.7%)
  • I prefer not to say (11%)

If we break the data down again, we see that different groups have different reasons for not reporting. For female and senior-level respondents, their primary reason for not reporting was that they feared retaliation for doing so. Male respondents didn’t report because they assumed someone else would report it, or they didn’t feel it was their place to report it. Entry-level employees didn’t report because they didn’t believe their workplace would take any action, or that they wouldn’t be believed.


55% report harassment to a manager

When they reported harassment, to whom did they report it? 55.3% say they reported it to their manager, 36.4% reported the issue to the HR department, and 8.3% 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.


54% of harassment reports were fully resolved

All reported issues should be investigated, and should be resolved — but are they? Only 53.5% of our respondents say their reported issue was fully resolved after they reported it. 24.2% reported that their issue was partially resolved. For 11.5%, their issue was not resolved, and no action was taken in regards to it. 4.6% report it not being resolved, but believe their workplace is working on it. 6.1% say that reporting made the issue worse.

In examining the data further, only 37.7% of female respondents saw their reported issue fully resolved, while 62.4% of male respondents saw their reported issue fully resolved, 66.9% of senior-level respondents saw their reported issue fully resolved, and 52.1% of entry-level respondents saw their reported issue fully resolved.

9.6% of female respondents said that raising the issue made it worse, and 8.5% of entry-level respondents said the same, whereas 6.1% of senior-level respondents and 4.2% of male respondents said that raising the issue made it worse.


85% are more inclined to report harassment if it’s truly anonymous

If our respondents could report harassment in a completely anonymous way, would they be more inclined to do so? 84.5% replied that yes, they would. 15.5% said they would not.

We found that male respondents (87.3%) and senior-level respondents (84.6%) were more likely to report using anonymous channels than female respondents (81.4%) and entry-level respondents (82.6%).


Even with anonymous options, 24% still wouldn’t report the issue

For those who replied that they would not be more inclined to report if an anonymous channel were made available, 38.6% say that they would use another way to report. 37% wouldn’t report through an anonymous channel because they don’t believe it would be truly anonymous (perhaps due to past issues around believing a report was anonymous when it wasn’t). 24.4% say that even with an anonymous option, they still wouldn’t report the issue.

Entry-level respondents (37.9%) and female respondents (27.8%) were more likely not to report the issue even if an anonymous channel were provided. Male respondents (45.5%) and senior-level respondents (42.2%) were more likely not to report because they don’t believe the method would be truly anonymous.


72% believe their workplace wants them to report harassment

With a fuller picture now of harassment prevention and reporting, we wanted to know: Do you believe your employer wants harassment to be reported? 72.3% replied that yes, they do believe their employer wants it reported. However, 27.7% 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.


Anonymous channels and a more user-friendly platform could encourage more reporting

What are some actions that workplaces can take to encourage more reporting? We asked our respondents to choose all that applied:

  • Ensure reporting is anonymous (56.6%)
  • More user-friendly reporting platform (49.3%)
  • Encouragement from leadership (40.5%)
  • More awareness around what harassment is and how to recognize it (39.8%)
  • Normalizing the conversation at work around reporting harassment (36.3%)
  • My company committing not to retaliate against employees for reporting harassment (33.5%)
  • Having a bystander intervention training (26.6%)
  • Other (6.7%)


Section Summary

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.

What’s the solution? Employees are not only more inclined to report if the channel to do so is anonymous — 84.5% are more likely to do so — anonymous reporting is the number one approach they believe organizations can take to encourage more reporting. This is because anonymous reporting allows employees the ability to voice their concerns without fear of retaliation, not being considered a team player, or loss of job duties — something many employees can’t risk.

Ultimately, though, 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%.


Conclusion

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 we ask “Have you experienced harassment?” in the future, our responses will be “No,” for everyone.

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