September 19, 2023

While the workplace has experienced significant changes in the last few years, one thing hasn’t changed: workplace harassment and employees’ reluctance to report it.  

Why? In a word: trust. If employees don’t trust that their organization’s leadership will take harassment and misconduct issues seriously, they are more likely not to report it. As a result, misconduct goes unchecked, creating a toxic workplace that negatively impacts employees’ overall health and psychological safety, engagement, retention and productivity. 

  • A survey by HR Acuity cited a lack of trust and confidence in employers’ culture and processes as the reason why 42% of respondents who experienced workplace harassment or misconduct did not report it.  
  • Ethisphere’s 2023 ethical culture report noted that more than half (56%) of Gen Z employees (born between 1997 and 2012) failed to report misconduct because they did not believe corrective action would be taken; and 47% feared retaliation.  
  • Traliant’s survey of 2,000 US employees found that 59% of respondents felt uncomfortable filing a workplace misconduct complaint out of concerns it won’t be confidential. Almost 40% of respondents said they were reluctant to file a complaint because of favoritism in the workplace, while 35% were worried they’d lose their job.  

Managers role in building trust and psychological safety 
Through their words and actions, managers set the tone for their team and influence how psychologically safe individuals feel about coming forward about potential harassment and other misconduct. If they aren’t alert to employee concerns and don’t encourage team members to speak up, managers can miss the warning signs, which can lead to legal issues and costly consequences. 

Training supervisors in their responsibility to properly respond to complaints – including complaints about them – is another step to building trust. This includes avoiding retaliation against employees who report potential wrongdoing or take part in an investigation (internal or external). Any form of retaliation is illegal – from firing an employee to giving them the silent treatment – and managers should be aware of and prevent any retaliatory behavior from other employees against a co-worker who raises concerns. 

Multiple reporting options and follow through 
Offering multiple reporting options, such as a designated HR manager, portal, mobile app and anonymous online tool, help make it easier for employees to report workplace misconduct and reinforce the organization’s commitment to a speak-up culture. During team meetings and one-on-one check ins, managers should make sure that employees are aware of the different reporting channels, along with anti-harassment policies, procedures and behavior expectations that apply to everyone, regardless of their position. 

And if there is an investigation, managers should follow up with the employee to assure them that relevant actions are being taken and their complaint will be treated confidentially. 

Training managers on their responsibility to prevent discrimination and harassment, handle employee complaints promptly and foster psychological safety helps build trust, transparency and accountability: the foundation of a safe, respectful and inclusive work culture. 

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Maggie Smith