HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

Underreporting of Sexual Harassment—Steps to Take

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recently published the results of a year-long research initiative: the SHRM Harassment-Free Workplace series. The first part of the series focused on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.
In a previous post, we looked at some surprising data showing that 22 percent of non-management employee respondents to the survey were not sure their company had sexual harassment policies in place. Today, the problem of underreporting.

Underreporting of Harassment

Another finding from the survey is perhaps less surprising given the lack of awareness of policies in many companies. There is a high degree of underreporting of sexual harassment incidents. While 11% of the nonmanagement employees responding indicated they had experienced some sort of harassment in the past year, 76% said they did not report the harassment. Why? The reasons included fear of retaliation and \the belief that the situation would not change.
SHRM’s findings are consistent with the findings of the EEOC, which released a study of workplace harassment in the United States in 2016.
HR professionals are well aware that incidents are being underreported. “A majority of HR professionals (57%) believed that unreported incidents occur to a small extent in their organizations. In contrast, 35% of nonmanager employees believed that,” according to SHRM.

Turning Things Around

What can they do about it? An article in Vox, covering the EEOC survey, points to a few specific steps organizations can take to boost the reporting of these incidents:

  • Address fears of retaliation, the most significant reasons incidents aren’t reported. The EEOC report notes that “One 2003 study found that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.”
  • Be specific. The EEOC found that reports of incidents increased when specific details were mentioned, “like sexual coercion or crude jokes.”
  • Take a different approach to training. Once-a-year sessions simply aren’t working. Instead, the article suggests that programs be tailored to specific workplaces with an emphasis on middle managers.

Conversations are taking place around the country in response to the #MeToo movement. They should be taking place in your organization as well. Harassment carries costs that are far-reaching. Creating a culture that fosters awareness and reporting, without fear of retaliation, can help companies minimize those costs.
According to a SHRM press release the research included two confidential surveys of HR professionals with a total of 1,078 respondents and a survey of 1,223 nonmanager employees. The research was conducted in January 2018 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 and 3 percentage points, respectively.