Why Workplace Sexual Harassment Is Under-Reported: SHRM Survey

Sexual harassment in the workplace is under-reported by employees partly because some employees are unaware that their employers have anti-harassment policies or that there are ways to report without bringing harm to themselves, according to a survey of human resource managers and non-manager employees.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey found that 11 percent of non-management employees said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past 12 months. Of those, 76 percent said they did not report it for reasons that included fear of retaliation or a belief that nothing would change. This finding is consistent with what the Equal Employment Opportunity Council (EEOC) has previously reported, according to SHRM.

“It appears that employees don’t feel that they have the power to bring allegations forward in a way that won’t harm them,” said Evren Esen, SHRM’s director of workforce analytics.

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Thirty-six percent of HR professionals reported at least one sexual harassment allegation at their organization within the past 12 months. Of these, 36 percent reported an increase in allegations in the past year.

A majority of HR professionals (57 percent) believe that unreported incidents occur to a small extent in their organizations. In contrast, 35 percent of non-manager employees believe that.

The survey found that verbal harassment, including unwanted sexual advances through words and comments, is the most common form of sexual harassment.

“Unspoken cultural norms can allow inappropriate behavior,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., chief executive officer of SHRM. “Sometimes the harasser might not realize that what is being said is inappropriate. This is why a culture of respect and training are important.”

Employer Policy

Although most employers have a policy on sexual harassment, some employees are not aware of it, the survey also found.

Ninety-four percent of surveyed HR professionals told SHRM that their organizations have anti-harassment policies. Yet, 22 percent of non-management employees did not know for sure that these policies existed.

“A lack of information exists for some employees,” said Esen. “The research findings suggest that, in some cases, policies are discussed as part of new-hire orientation and then shared only during training, which occurs once a year or once every two years.”

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Esen said companies and HR departments have “more work to do to create environments that emphasize respect and minimize the fear of retaliation.” The survey suggests this is may be happening. Sixty-two percent of HR respondents said their organizations are re-assessing their organizations and culture to identify potential risks for sexual harassment.

Thirty-two percent of organizations made changes to their sexual harassment training in the past year. The most common changes were to include workplace civility and to tailor training to a specific workforce.

Taylor said policies need to be continually reinforced by leaders and managers and be part of everyday discussions. “If it’s not part of your culture to be talking about this, then it is going to be harder to curb inappropriate behaviors,” Taylor said.

Most employers use technology to deliver training, with 37 percent using online/video training, and 36 percent using both online/video and face-to-face training.

SHRM’s research included two confidential surveys of HR professionals with a total of 1,078 respondents and a survey of 1,223 non-manager employees. The research was conducted in January 2018 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 and 3 percentage points, respectively. SHRM has 575 affiliated chapters in the U.S. and 285,000 members globally.

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