ICYMI: An Increase in Workplace Harassment Allegations Is Creating Better Workplaces

Cornerstone Editors

The modern workplace is changing for the better. Not only are work environments moving toward a more employee-centric model, but they are also gradually developing better workplace practices that could drive cultural changes.The Third Annual HR Acuity Employee Relations (ER) Benchmark Study analyzed these changes as they relate to harassment and misconduct in the workplace and unveiled some surprising results.

The study analyzed 150 leading enterprises with more than 4.4 million employees between them and found that both sexual and non-sexual harassment allegations have increased by more than half since 2017. And almost half of organizations expect these harassment claims to grow in number over the next year. However, the research also revealed that as the number of allegations rises, so, too, does the quality of practices used to handle and investigate these claims.

The ER Benchmark Study examines what caused the increase in allegations over the past year, what ER and human resources departments can and are doing to deal with this heavier workload and how these allegations are working to change workplaces for the better.

#MeToo Has Made a Real Difference

The study cited four reasons for the increasing volume of allegations: organizational changes, increased awareness of perceived rights, the current political environment and, most notably, the #MeToo movement.

After the #MeToo movement went viral in late 2017, employees everywhere felt more empowered to come forward with sexual harassment allegations—53% percent of organizations reported an increase in sexual harassment claims with 43% expecting claims to go up again in the next 12 months. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency dedicated to administering and enforcing civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, felt the significant impact of the #MeToo movement as well. The agency reported a 13.6% increase in sexual harassment and retailation charges from 2017 to 2018.

In addition to sexual harassment, respondents revealed widespread increases in reporting unprofessional conduct and policy violations, accommodation requests, workplace bullying and discrimination against age and gender. The study states that these reports are most likely the result of modern employees’ increased awareness of their perceived rights. The growing popularity of employee-centric workplaces, where employers place the needs and wants of their employees before all else, could encourage this awareness. Employees in an employee-centric environment have better relationships with their managers and co-workers and, therefore, are more likely to stand up for one another when faced with bullying or poor conduct in the workplace.

HR Departments Are Ramping Up to Handle More Complaints

The spike in allegations has forced employee relations and HR professionals to juggle numerous claims at once. In fact, the study found that 49% of those conducting investigations average seven or more open investigations at once. With these heavy workloads, organizations and companies must improve their infrastructure, resources and processes to offer proper support, reduce future risk and prevent burnout. Most are already beginning to accommodate this new need: 43% of respondents expected to see an increase in the number of employee relations professionals over the next 12 months.

Employee relations and HR departments are also beginning to incorporate more technology to better manage workplace allegations and investigations. Thirty eight percent of respondents already use employee case management system software specifically built for these instances, while other organizations still use a combination of methods like Excel, Sharepoint, Hotline or legacy service delivery systems that have been adapted to manage sensitive and confidential matters. Luckily, 44% of organizations that aren’t yet using an employee relations or HR case management system are planning to transition to one in the next 12 months. This technology integration is expected to continue as organizations look to minimize future risk and avoid negative public attention due to poorly managed issues.

Workplaces Are Changing for the Better

The #MeToo movement, increased awareness of employee rights and changing workplace dynamics have encouraged a change in perspective that is seeping into the fabric of the average workday. Today’s employees are less likely to accept poor behavior, harassment and bullying in the workplace, and they’re less afraid to report it, too. These changes may create a temporarily tense work environment, but they have a silver lining: Because employees are demanding greater transparency, fairness and consistency, employers and organizations are forced to deliver on these requests.

The rise in allegations has encouraged organizations to make stronger and more immediate changes to their HR and ER departments. For example, the study found that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, many organizations began working quickly to educate employees on reporting processes and encourage them to report inappropriate behavior and harassment. Companies are also more committed to creating better trained and skilled HR and ER professionals. Although the study found that 58% of companies only train investigators on an as-needed basis, it predicts that this trend is likely to change in the next 10 years.

Overall, these changes seem to be working: A study from the Society of Human Resources Management found that one in three executives changed their behaviors in the wake of the #MeToo movement. That same study found 72% of employee respondents were satisfied by their company’s efforts to stop sexual harassment in the workplace. Despite the growing pains and tension that may result from an increased number of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations, modern workplaces are already noticing how these conflicts are actually working to create safer, more consistent and trustworthy work environments for all employees.

Header photo: Creative Commons

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