Silent Witnesses: An Untapped Resource for Tackling Harassment

Most incidents of workplace harassment or discrimination don’t happen in the dark, but you’re still unlikely to hear about them. Witnesses don’t typically speak up about what they heard or saw. By addressing the witness underreporting problem, employers can access a largely untapped source of information that can help them gain insight into what’s happening within their organization.

More common than you think

We know that at least 70% of incidents of workplace harassment or discrimination are never reported. And marginalized groups are impacted at disproportionately higher rates. Our research team reviewed research from the last ten years on who experiences this kind of behavior, and we learned that:

  • 90% of women in the service industry and 60% of women overall have experienced sexual harassment
  • 65% of students who are people of color experienced racial harassment or discrimination just in one 12-month period
  • 97% of LGBTQI+ individuals have experienced various forms of workplace harassment

While 70% of these incidents aren’t reported, we now know that they’re not happening in the dark. Spot surveyed over 1000 people on witness reporting and found that 79% of them had witnessed an incident of harassment or discrimination within the past five years, and 42% had witnessed an incident within the past year.

Witnesses are talking

Spot’s research shows that most witnesses of harassment or discrimination talk to someone else about what they saw or heard. 67% of witnesses talk to someone outside of work (such as a friend or family member), and about half of them (46%) tell a colleague at work about the incident.

While witnesses are talking, the vast majority (77%) don’t report to HR. This result points to a social contagion effect, where employees are talking about inappropriate behavior—typically a negative experience—amongst themselves but not telling anyone with the power to take action on that behavior. These negative feelings can infect company culture, continuing to spread unless something is done to fix the situation.

So why don’t witnesses speak up? Like victims, most employees who witness toxic behavior don’t feel empowered to do anything about it. In our survey, witnesses said that they didn’t report harassment or discrimination because they were:

  • Worried about the consequences (34%)
  • Didn’t want to interfere (29%)
  • Didn’t know that witnesses could report (22%)
  • Didn’t want to be a “snitch” (18%)
  • Didn’t know how to report (16%)

The high cost of witness underreporting

Witness underreporting contributes to a larger problem: Companies don’t hear about issues until they become huge problems that affect everyone. Left unchecked, harassment and discrimination can lead to increased legal, healthcare, training, and turnover costs, as well as to reputational damage. In fact, the annual cost of just sexual harassment—from absenteeism, lost productivity, and turnover—exceeds $6 million per Fortune 500 company.

There are significant negative consequences for employees, too. When employees face or witness harassment or discrimination in the workplace and don’t feel they have an outlet to speak up, they may experience longer-term consequences such as depression, PTSD, blood pressure issues, insomnia, and stress.

How to encourage witness reporting

Based on Spot’s research, witnesses are more likely to speak up if their employer:

  • Gives them choices about where to report
  • Actively encourages witness reporting
  • Provides an automated reporting system
  • Make it easier to find out how to report

According to witnesses, by far the most effective way to encourage them to speak up is to offer a reporting system that allows anonymity, like Spot. By using an AI-based bot that takes the human out of the equation, Spot helps employees talk through what happened without feeling judged. And since Spot is a confidential two-way communication tool, employers can ask important follow-up questions, streamlining the process for HR to investigate and take action.

When witnesses are encouraged to speak up and given a safe, anonymous way to do so, organizations are more likely to tackle problems before they escalate, mitigating legal risk and creating a culture that retains employees.

Interested in more of the results of our witness survey? Find the full witness report on our Research page..