Despite increased efforts to prevent harassment and discrimination, approximately 75% of incidents will never be reported. Even with heightened awareness around this issue, countless individuals are suffering silently while bearing the professional and personal costs of toxic behavior in the workplace. And companies are—in many cases unknowingly—bearing their side of the cost with legal risk, productivity loss, retention issues, higher healthcare costs, and potential PR disasters that they can’t adequately anticipate.
And yet, concern over false allegations still seems to trump concern over the pervasive and proven problem of underreporting. And it isn’t just high-profile individuals who worry about being falsely accused. A recent study conducted by the Hollywood Reporter and Morning Consult revealed that men’s biggest concern at work is false harassment claims from women. This national poll found that men's fear of false allegations outweighed their concern over issues such as women being paid less than men, women facing obstacles to career advancement, and women experiencing sexual harassment or assault at work.
Fear of false allegations has real consequences. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, recently noted that women face professional development hurdles because “60% of male managers are afraid to have a one-on-one meeting with a female employee.”
What the numbers say
The truth is that false reports are quite rare. Just like the misinformed “stranger danger” campaigns that frightened parents in the 1980s and ‘90s, the outcry over false reporting is focusing our attention in the wrong direction.
The data shows that false reports account for approximately 2-10% of all reports. But given that 75% of incidents aren’t ever reported in the first place, the number of unreported incidents of harassment and discrimination is far greater than the total number of submitted false reports.
It should also be noted how “false report” is defined in the data. In reality, there’s a difference between a good faith report that is ultimately proven to be unsubstantiated or unfounded and a malicious report designed to damage someone’s reputation. In the former scenario, harassment or discrimination may have occurred but there may not be enough evidence to take action. However, both are considered “false reports” within most reporting systems.
When employees are reporting early, before things escalate, and have access to an anonymous tool that helps them create rich, accurate accounts of what happened, HR can get a true sense of what’s happening in their organization. They can then respond appropriately and implement proactive measures to reduce risk and investigative costs and positively impact culture.
But misconceptions about false reporting have direct, negative consequences and ultimately contribute to the problem of underreporting. We know that two of the barriers to reporting are fear of not being believed and fear of retaliation. If an organization places undue emphasis on the potential for false reports, people who actually experience harassment or discrimination have greater reason to fear their reports will be met with suspicion or derision and become even less likely to speak up.
Shifting the focus
Rather than focusing on the fraction of reports that turn out to be false, people-centered leaders are tackling the issue of underreporting by encouraging their employees to speak up about inappropriate behavior at work. To accomplish this, they’re creating strong anti-harassment policies, making sure those policies are communicated, giving people options of who to report to, and providing an anonymous reporting tool such as Spot.
Because it’s an anonymous platform, Spot gives employees the opportunity to voice concerns without fear of retaliation, so they’re more likely to feel comfortable speaking up. This safe method of reporting gives HR insight into their organization’s climate and the ability to respond before things escalate. And when your employees believe you’ll take their concerns seriously and respond appropriately, you’re building a culture of trust where false accusations are less likely to happen.
Want to hear more about false reporting and the questions we should be asking instead? Listen to my interview on a recent episode of the All Turtles Startup Playbook podcast.