Harassment in the workplace is a major concern for risk managers and one that just won’t go away. The latest figures from the Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI) show this is a bigger problem than many have anticipated. 

A decade ago, companies made headlines for problems such as bribery, financial manipulation, and fraud. The attention has shifted, though towards much bigger and potentially more costly issues.

For the past two years, mistreatment of employees, especially abusive behavior, sexual harassment and discrimination, has joined data privacy as a critical issue of our time. #MeToo and #TimesUp have given a name to the larger effort to unearth problems that have festered and to find a path towards safer more respectful workplaces.

Efforts to expose the issues have uncovered repetitive patterns of interpersonal misconduct in organizations around the world. Our heightened awareness of interpersonal misconduct and the toll it takes on individual employees and organizations is a positive development. But more needs to be known about the nature of the issues, the scope of problems, the factors that exacerbate problems and strategies for fostering respectful workplaces.

As part of its Global Business Ethics Survey (GBES), the Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI) gathered data to inform the conversations taking place in workplaces and to suggest a constructive path forward.

The report looked at the following questions:

  1. What does interpersonal misconduct (abusive behavior, sexual harassment, and/ or discrimination) look like in the modern workplace?
  2. What is the frequency of these behaviors?
  3. How does interpersonal misconduct occur in the workplace?
  4. What are the greatest risk factors? 

Data from the GBES revealed that more than one in four (27%) employees observed at least one of the following types of interpersonal misconduct in their workplace. Further, 5% of employees have observed all three types of misconduct in 2018.

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Most problems happened on multiple occasions (62%) and were deemed “serious” or even “very serious” by observers (61%). Equally troubling, many of those perpetrating the misconduct were middle or senior managers. For discrimination in particular, employees indicated that most of the observed misconduct (56%) was committed by those in leadership.

Some industries seem to be particularly perilous for employees; nearly two out of every five employees (39%) in the accommodation and food services industry have observed at least one type of interpersonal misconduct, while fewer than two in ten (17%) employees in professional services observed an incident of misconduct. 

Some industries seem to be particularly perilous for employees; 39% in the accommodation and food services industry have observed at least one type of interpersonal misconduct, compared with 17% of employees in professional services. 

According to ECI, there are three main factors which put employees and their companies at particular risk for interpersonal misconduct.

According to the GBES, about one in three of those who observe interpersonal misconduct do not report it—leaving problems unsolved and putting employees and companies at risk. Raising reporting rates for interpersonal misconduct can be particularly difficult.

A report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace describes how harassment claims are frequently ignored and trivialized and how the victim often ends up being blamed for causing problems. While the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have drawn attention to workplace harassment, it is still extremely difficult for victims to bring forward such claims.

Increased reporting of interpersonal misconduct will require focused efforts to provide support and reassurance to potential reporters that their allegations will be investigated without repercussions. It is particularly important that the company has a solid track record of handling claims of interpersonal misconduct with diligence and sensitivity.

There are several critical areas that provide the foundation for employees to feel secure in sharing their experiences of workplace interpersonal misconduct. Employees need to believe that the organisational culture values employees speaking up about any type of concern.

Leaders who continually display transparency and authenticity go a long way in creating a context in which employees feel that the company is open to sharing not only the good, but also shortcomings and failures. This needs to be further reinforced by supervisors that employees trust and who model a commitment to ethical behavior.