Alongside COVID-19 vaccines approvals (and anti-vax protests and activism in reaction), the ‘Great Resignation’ and the Free Britney campaign (news alert: she is now free!), workplace misconduct has been at the top of the news agenda this year.
Notable examples include gaming giant Activision Blizzard being sued by the US state of California, and the US federal securities and exchange commission (SEC), for its alleged ‘frat boy’ culture.
The most recent update is an employee walk out in response to news that Activision Blizzard’s CEO Bobby Kotick knew about the sexual harassment going on at the company; workers are calling for Kotick’s removal.
Other examples are Apple employees launching a website to speak out about discrimination and hold senior leadership to account, as well as Netflix workers walking out over the streaming platform standing behind Dave Chappelle and his transphobic comments.
Unfortunately, these high-profile cases are far from not isolated incidents.
Research by Vault found that 76% of UK and US employees have experienced or witness misconduct, like bullying, discrimination and bribery, at work.
Of those, 51% in the US and 49% in the UK have personally experienced workplace – this rises to 64% for those aged between 18 and 34.
Evidently, this problem is systemic since 76% of UK and 84% of US workers reported they experienced workplace misconduct more than once.
Even more terrifyingly, 37% in the UK and 48% in the US reported experiencing or witnessing misconduct at least once a month. This final statistic was the biggest shock from Vault’s research for its chief customer officer Tori Reichman.
Workplace misconduct and the pandemic
Reichman tells UNLEASH that another shock from the report – and a question she often gets when talking with Vault’s customers – is “in the wake of everybody working from home, was [misconduct] really happening” and still so pervasive?
“The reality is that the 2,000 people we [surveyed] all worked from home over the last year” and still reported that experiencing or witnessing misconduct was common.
“All of the misconduct we had seen in the office, it just shifted to digital” – people still made comments on video calls or on communication platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams, rather than face-to-face.
In fact, other Vault research found that people are actually much more likely to mistreat their colleagues and teams during the pandemic. “The reason that misconduct is so rife within this context is that people are genuinely concerned for their own security,” explains Reichman.
“This creates a framework where employees feel they need to take measures to protect their own jobs”, so they might inflate their own performance and talk other people down or turn a blind eye to a supervisor’s poor behavior to avoid rocking the boat.
To add to this, employees have never felt more disconnected from one another. Burnout and stress levels also reached an all-time high, and nonprofit Project Include believes this is why there was an increase in workplace harassment during the pandemic.
Reichman continues that another challenge is that with everyone working remotely or hybrid, it is harder for managers and leaders to have a finger on the pulse of what is going in their organization.
Barriers to reporting
One of the positives to come out of the pandemics is “the tendency towards activism is increasing on the employees’ part”, according to Reichman.
This is happening at big brands, like Activision Blizzard, Apple and Netflix as already mentioned, and “every time an organization’s employees display activism, it gives confidence to [other] people watching” to do the same thing, according to Reichman.
Despite this positive trend, a major barrier for progress around workplace misconduct is people feeling comfortable reporting what they experience or witness.
While Reichman shares with UNLEASH that in October 2021 the Securities and Exchange Commission crossed the $1 billion mark in terms of whistleblower payouts, she also notes her shock that whistleblowers report that they tried five or six times to report misconduct within their organizations.
This makes it abundantly clear that while employees may feel more empowered than ever to report, “internal solutions are not fit for purpose” and employers not actually listening to or responding to the issues raised.
How HR tech can help
Part of the issue, according to Reichman, is the failures of legacy solutions, such as hotlines, to build trust between employees and their companies.
Project Include’s work confirms that people don’t trust HR and do not trust their companies to do the right thing when they report misconduct.
Instead, Reichman calls on companies to leverage 21st century tech, such as Vault or Equality Check, which encourages them to “ethical by design” and bake equality and fairness intentionally into everything they do.
“In order to have a health, inclusive, ethical culture, businesses really need to be intentional at the outset”, explains Reichman.
The first thing is to make solutions accessible and ensure they are easy to use – legacy solutions currently fail to do this, according to Reichman.
She notes that they need to be digital tools and they need to enable employees to report issues anonymously to overcome a “fear of retaliation”.
Vault’s study found that 37% of US and 35% of UK employees didn’t report incidents because of concerns about anonymity; 76% of workers wanted to use an anonymized app, and 74% of HR leaders agreed.
“The other piece that is missing in the legacy infrastructure is the ability to close the loop” with the employee who reported the misconduct. They need to “genuinely believe that an investigation is in place”, be kept update do of its status, and then be informed “when the investigation is completed” and what the outcome is.
This enables employees to feel that their concerns are being listened to and taken seriously. “Every time an employee has a positive experience, they will tell their peers that they can trust this tool”. “Maybe you won’t like the outcome, but you can trust the situation will be looked at comprehensively”, explains Reichman.
Technology is also useful for employers as it helps them to “close the loop seamlessly…reducing the administrative burden”. It further allows employers to clearly what the problems are and then take steps meaningful steps to clamp down on misconduct.
Reichman shares some examples of companies who are successfully using Vault’s anonymized app, open reporting interface and resolution hub technology.
Reichman notes that Kavak is “having phenomenal success in encouraging people to speak up and use Vault in real time as they do”. Vault has also helped them to focus on creating a culture of psychological safety for its employees.
A solution to the ‘Great Resignation’?
Given how important misconduct reporting is to creating a fair and inclusive workplace, could stamping out bullying, harassment and other forms of bad behavior at work help companies to succeed in the ongoing ‘Great Resignation’?
Reichman thinks so.
She notes that those who have kept their jobs during the pandemic are now evaluating whether “this is the type of organization that they want to be part of”.
Those organizations that are seen to brush misconduct under the carpet and just give lip service to solving systemic problems are likely to lose out to competitors with “ethics at its core and that deliver on promises”.
Employers also need to show they are genuine about their promises and are not just implementing strategies and tech because they are forced to by legislation, such as the incoming EU Whistleblower Directive.
Ultimately, “employees now have the power to choose organizations that are mission-aligned”, notes Reichman.
Gen Z, who are leading the ‘Great Resignation’ and are already experiencing workplace misconduct, are even more likely than older generations to leave jobs for companies that share their values.
Linked to this, organizations are aware that there are huge reputational risks for them to attract talent and investment in the future if their internal issues are publicly aired by their employees walking out, or tweeting out demands, or sharing grievances with newspapers.
Clamping down on workplace misconduct – and preventing it from happening in the future – is not just a nice to have, but it is good for business. Vault found that misconduct cost the US economy $28.74 billion in unproductive hours and rehiring costs last year.
So what are you waiting for? There has never been a better time to act against bullying, harassment, and bribery in the workplace.
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