Bringing in HR: A Look at Where Americans Draw the Line for Workplace Violations
As allegations of sexual harassment and other unlawful misconduct transform America’s most visible industries, a deep and warranted reckoning continues in our country. Although revelations about high-profile perpetrators in politics and film have accelerated national awareness, these issues extend far beyond the misdeeds of the rich and famous. In offices, factories, restaurants, and other workplaces around America, the dynamics of workplace violence and discrimination demonstrate themselves daily.
While experts estimate the scale of workplace discrimination in the form of harassment and violence is pandemic, measuring the extent of these incidents in any industry is difficult. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as much as 75 percent of workplace misconduct goes unreported.
We sought to uncover the frequency with which employees encountered various kinds of transgressions and discrimination at work. Surveying over 1,000 Americans, we asked them about their experiences – and how they responded when such circumstances arose. Our findings show vast differences in the way individuals judge what is inappropriate at work and what employers felt should be done to address these actions. Read on to learn how your vision of a safe and successful workplace compares to the opinions of our respondents.
When faced with workplace situations they felt might be problematic, the vast majority of respondents went to HR less than half the time. In fact, just 11.1 percent reported their concerns in at least half of cases. Our findings indicate those who reported with greater frequency also did so more swiftly on average. Whereas the typical worker reported an incident nearly 29 days after it occurred, that period was significantly smaller for those who usually or always went to HR when a problem arose.
Perhaps reporting would occur more often and more quickly if complaints were resolved more successfully. While 64.9 percent said their complaints were resolved at least half the time, that left more than a third of participants frustrated with the potential failure of their company’s HR professionals. Perhaps that’s a big part of the reason 3 in 4 respondents let issues go unaddressed at least half the time: Many may lack confidence that an effective solution will be implemented.
Identifying Inappropriate Actions
Concerning overall understanding of inappropriateness at work, answers from men and women significantly differed. While slightly less than half of women were comfortable with colleagues flirting, 63.4 percent of men said it was perfectly fine. This gulf widened on actual intimacy at work, with 46.9 percent of men saying they were comfortable with such intimacy occurring. Among women, just 22.9 percent said such actions were appropriate.
When asked which actions by a co-worker made them most uncomfortable, men stressed physical intrusions. At least 80 percent of male participants said they were uncomfortable with a colleague touching them. An even greater percentage of women said they experienced discomfort in response to the same question, but the vast majority of female respondents also said they found non-physical acts of aggression intolerable. More than 97 percent of women would not be comfortable if a co-worker made comments about intimate activities to them, and more than 9 in 10 felt uncomfortable about a colleague constantly staring below their necklines during workplace conversations.
How Men Perceived Misconduct
Over a fifth of men said they felt they had been sexually harassed at work, and more than 1 in 10 of those reported they’d also seen a colleague harassed but neglected to take action. Perhaps these figures relate to a narrow definition of perceived harassment among male respondents, since a majority of men had experienced situations that might qualify as such. At least 50 percent of men, for example, said they’d been the subject of a co-worker’s suggestive jokes regarding their appearance or had a colleague brag about their sex life to them. When asked what would prompt them to involve HR, the vast majority of men said they’d report someone inappropriately touching them.
Typically, far more men experienced these potentially problematic acts from workplace peers rather than supervisors. But nearly a third of male employees said a boss made suggestive comments about their looks, and 43.6 percent said they’d had a supervisor stand uncomfortably close when they were talking. A smaller but significant portion of men reported a boss had bragged about sexual conquests to them or questioned them about their sexual habits and preferences.
How Women Perceived Misconduct
Nearly half of women reported experiencing what they perceived to be sexual harassment themselves, and over 23 percent of those same women said they’d witnessed a colleague being harassed and decided not to get involved. Relative to men, however, a far greater percentage of women said they’d go to HR about a range of behaviors. Nearly 90 percent said they’d report someone who described wanting to engage in inappropriate conduct with them. When faced with a situation in which someone “accidentally” brushed up against them inappropriately on multiple occasions, over 84 percent said they’d talk to HR.
While a greater percentage of women reported multiple forms of harassment coming from a co-worker rather than a supervisor, the rates of perceived harassment by bosses was still strikingly high. This finding confirms the assertion that power dynamics can be intricately involved in many harassment and assault scenarios – and reporting one’s boss can seem even more daunting than addressing the actions of a workplace peer. Roughly 39 percent of women, for example, said a supervisor had stood too close in conversation, and more than 1 in 5 had received an uninvited shoulder massage.
The Ethics of Ethnicity
Although public discourse has recently been dominated by discussions of sexual harassment or discrimination and gender inequality, racial discrimination also remains problematic in workplaces nationwide. In total, 42.1 percent of surveyed workers reported being on the receiving end of racial discrimination, and nearly 6 in 10 of those same respondents said they had observed colleagues getting the same treatment but did not intervene.
Despite this, respondents of various ethnicities ranked different specific experiences by inappropriateness. More than 85 percent of Asian-American respondents, for example, said they’d been asked where they truly came from, and a majority of Hispanic and African-American respondents indicated they’d had the same experience. But a significant percentage of African-American and Hispanic respondents had seen racial stereotypes used to gauge work quality, whereas far fewer Caucasian and Asian-American employees said the same. Fewer than a third of Caucasian workers had witnessed this form of discrimination at work, and it didn’t register among the five most common types of prejudice observed by Asian-Americans.
When asked which types of potentially racial discrimination would prompt them to involve HR, the greatest percentage of respondents identified using racial stereotypes to assess work quality. Other top offenses included racially insensitive imitations and offering certain benefits that proved fruitless to minorities. Remarking an employee “sounded” or “acted” white, or asking people of color to perform lower-level tasks rounded out the five actions respondents were most likely to report to HR.
Productivity in Peril
While discrimination is unlawful and among the most egregious form of workplace misconduct, many other actions can hinder productivity for all workers. In fact, a majority of respondents said they’d asked a colleague to stop distracting them at some point in their careers. Beyond trying to talk to their co-workers directly, a large percentage of respondents felt they’d go to HR concerning certain behaviors. Bringing one’s pet to work was most likely to generate this response, followed closely by constantly dropping by a colleague’s desk.
These behaviors differed slightly from the actions that would make the largest percentage of workers feel uncomfortable, however. Gossiping would cause more than 6 in 10 workers discomfort, though only 50 percent would actually approach HR about it. Some experts have suggested gossip can enable more serious harassment and abuse in many instances, diverting discussion of harmful behavior from the proper channels and creating a culture of complicity. Heavy or loud breathing was another behavior that would make about half our respondents uncomfortable, though fewer people said they’d talk to HR about it.
Among younger respondents with relatively limited workforce experience, 60.4 percent said they’d go to HR to report a colleague who frequently gossiped. But for older members of the workforce, gossip was a lesser priority among the actions that would prompt them to seek HR for help. For this cohort, other interruptions in workflow were of the greatest concern, from dropping by one’s desk too often to bringing in overly fragrant food for lunch. They were also more sensitive than workers in the 18-24 range to pauses in their colleagues’ work, including snack and smoke breaks.
Older workers (age 65 and older) were more likely to inform HR about a wider range of concerns. Although some have suggested older workers were exposed to a culture of silence around more serious workplace transgressions in decades past, our findings indicate they’re actually less reticent about these annoyances. In one respect, however, younger workers were dramatically more attuned to etiquette: cell phones and social media. More than half of this younger cohort said they’d report someone’s excessive social media use or the distracting sound of smartphone notifications.
Building a Better Workplace
Our findings indicate a diverse array of experiences and opinions regarding problematic workplace behaviors. However, while this subject may seem rife with controversy, we may share more in terms of basic professional values than we recognize. No employee in any field should labor under duress, and we should all consider our behaviors in light of how they might affect others. To that end, effective and empowered HR professionals are assets in any workplace. Whether to prevent unlawful misconduct or navigate modest misunderstandings, their roles are essential to a successful working environment.
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We collected 1,005 Americans’ responses (2017). 44.6 percent of our participants were men, and 55.4 percent were women. 7.4 percent of our participants were Asian-American, 8.5 percent were African-American, 78.6 percent were Caucasian, and 5.5 percent were Hispanic. 9.6 percent of participants were aged 18 to 24, and 3.1 percent were aged 65 and older. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 76, with a mean of 38 and a standard deviation of 12.3. Multiracial/biracial respondents, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders were excluded due to sample size. We weighted the data to the 2016 U.S. census for age and gender.
The data we are presenting rely on self-reporting. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include but are not limited to: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration.
No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is purely exploratory, and future research should approach this topic in a more rigorous way.