New Research from Spot: Witness Reporting and the ‘Social Contagion’ of Toxic Work Culture

According to an international study with over 1,000 participants, people who witnessed harassment or discrimination at work told many people about it, but they didn’t tell HR.

Thanks in part to international campaigns, public awareness about the underreporting of workplace harassment and discrimination has grown tremendously. And we know that it’s not just the tech industry and entertainment that suffer from inappropriate workplace behavior—other sectors such as finance, the sciences, and the service industry are increasingly aware of the problem as well.

Most research on the subject has understandably focused on victims, the people who directly experience such behavior. So far very little has focused on the impact of such behavior on witnesses.

In analyzing Spot reports contributed for research, we learned that about 60% of incidents involved a witness. This number surprised us. To gain a more complete understanding of it, Spot’s research team conducted a study with over 1,000 participants to examine the role of witnesses in reporting workplace harassment and discrimination to employers. The research involved a collaboration between Spot, researchers from three UK universities, and various NGOs and nonprofits that provide support for individuals with protected characteristics.

The main aims of this research were to 1) assess how many witnesses report witnessing workplace harassment and discrimination to their organization’s leadership or Human Resources (HR), 2) identify the barriers to reporting, and 3) ask witnesses what organizations could do to improve the process.

Why study witness reporting?

Research on witnesses is important for two main reasons:

  • It’s not just targets of harassment and discrimination who can suffer negative consequences. Witnesses can also be negatively affected. The result is often a toxic work culture where people feel unhappy or isolated.
  • Witnesses have the potential to be helpful allies and to alleviate some of the burden of reporting from people who experience harassment and discrimination.

Everyone’s talking about it—just not to HR

Our research found that harassment and discrimination at work remains a pressing issue, one that the majority of our participants had witnessed personally.

  • 79% of participants witnessed an incident of harassment or discrimination within the past five years.
  • This includes 42% who reported witnessing an incident within the past year.

What’s perhaps more troubling is that most witnesses talked about what they saw or experienced, but they didn’t tell someone who could take action to deal with or prevent the behavior. Instead they spoke with family, friends, or colleagues about what happened.

  • Most witnesses (67%) told someone outside of work about the incident, particularly family and friends.
  • About half of witnesses (46%) told other people at work about the incident.
  • Most witnesses (77%) never reported the incident to HR.

Despite feeling that the incident was worth telling others about, most witnesses didn’t go to HR. The fact that witnesses were, however, telling others is likely to have had a social contagion effect that infected company culture, continuing to spread unless something was done to rectify the situation.

It’s not just victims who worry about retaliation

Fear of retaliation is cited as a major reason why victims of harassment and discrimination don’t speak up. But it seems that witnesses are worried about the consequences of reporting, too. The top five reasons given by witnesses for not reporting to HR were:

  1. Being worried about the consequences (34%)
  2. Not wanting to interfere (29%)
  3. Not knowing that witnesses could report (22%)
  4. Not wanting to be a snitch (18%)
  5. Not knowing how to report (16%)

Many participants chose more than one option, showing that there are often multiple reasons that witnesses don’t speak up.

The search for solutions

What can organizations do to help witnesses feel more comfortable speaking up? When asked about the reasons for not reporting to HR, many witnesses cited issues with the process itself.

  • 16% of witnesses said they didn’t know how to report
  • 9% said the reporting process is too complicated
  • 5% said they don’t have time to report

Witnesses also said that employers would be more likely to hear from them if:

  • They had choices about where to report
  • Their employers actively encouraged them to report
  • They had an automated witness reporting system
  • Employers made it easier to find out how to report

The #1 way that witnesses said employers could improve witness reporting is by providing a system that allows witness anonymity.

In order to mobilize witnesses to curb the social contagion of toxic workplace culture, recommendations based on these survey results include:

  1. Harness the knowledge of witnesses for understanding harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
  2. Communicate internally that witnesses can report harassment and discrimination to HR, and educate them on the process for doing so.
  3. Educate employees on how to be good allies and on the problems, such as compromising anonymity, associated with not asking for permission before telling colleagues about an incident.
  4. Provide an efficient, anonymous, online reporting option for reporting inappropriate workplace behavior.

Witnesses represent a huge and largely untapped resource in the fight against harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Offering a safe way for witnesses to report, encouraging them to report, and emphasizing respect for victims’ anonymity are important steps towards creating safer, more inclusive workplaces.