43% of employees wouldn't tell HR about witnessing discrimination at work. Here's why people are afraid to approach the leaders who are supposed to advocate for them.

  • Many employees in a survey say they wouldn't talk to their HR department about experiencing sexual harassment or witnessing discrimination at work.
  • Other research has found that people often worry about retaliation from their employer if they file a complaint with HR.
  • HR is a critical function right now, in the midst of a pandemic and a recession.
  • Organizations should find out exactly why their employees might hesitate to approach HR and establish clear language for discussing misconduct.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Human resources is, theoretically, where employees can direct concerns about their workplace.

In reality, many people are wary of going to their HR department. Sometimes they worry about retaliation; other times they assume that HR won't do anything to help them.

In a survey by careers website Zety, some 69% of 926 Americans disagreed with the statement, "HR takes the side of the employee." And 36% of respondents said they wouldn't tell HR that they'd been a victim of sexual harassment.

Zety's survey echoes findings from other research. Yet HR has never been such an integral piece of employers' talent strategy. In 2019, employees were 45% more likely to recommend their employer as a place to work when HR investigated and resolved an issue they'd raised, compared to the average employee's willingness to recommend their employer. And that was before the pandemic.

Today's workers are dealing simultaneously with a health crisis and an economic crisis. Many companies are struggling to navigate the shift to remote work. And racial injustice has left communities of color unsettled.

If there were ever a time for HR to make itself more accessible to employees, this is it.

Many employees fear retaliation from their employer if they file a complaint with HR

Among other findings from the Zety survey:

  • 50% agree with the statement, "HR is trustworthy"
  • 43% of employees wouldn't report witnessing discrimination in the workplace
  • 63% of employees wouldn't tell HR about their interpersonal challenges with a coworker
  • 68% wouldn't tell HR about a colleague watching pornography at work

Why do employees hesitate to approach HR?

In a 2019 survey by HR technology platform HR Acuity, 85% of the more than 1,300 workers surveyed said they know how and where to register complaints. But 46% said they feared retaliation and 39% feared that HR wouldn't handle their complaint fairly.

Meanwhile, a 2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission indicates that about three quarters of individuals who experience sexual harassment at work never report it or talk to anyone about it. Often, that's because they fear the consequences of filing a formal complaint, they think no one will believe them, or they think no action will follow from their claim.

Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote in a blog post that, while working at Uber, she was sexually harassed and experienced gender bias — and that HR covered it up because the person who Fowler said harassed her was a "high performer."

The HR Acuity survey also found potential evidence of gender bias: Issues reported by men were 26% more likely to be investigated than issues reported by women.

Organizations should find out exactly why their employees hesitate to approach HR

There are some ways for employees to seek counsel without having to approach their HR department directly.

Bravely, for example, is an app that allows employees to speak with a professional outside their current organization (assuming their company is a Bravely client). Employees can get guidance on anything from dealing with a difficult manager to sexual misconduct at work.

That doesn't, however, take the onus off HR leaders to create a space where employees feel comfortable voicing their concerns. Business Insider's Caroline Hroncich reported that companies should gather data by asking employees questions such as, "Do you feel comfortable speaking up?" and "Do you feel your complaint will be taken seriously?"

Emtrain, which provides sexual harassment, bias, and code-of-conduct training for top tech companies, uses colors to indicate different workplace behaviors, Hroncich reported. For example, yellow actions are "frustrating or demotivating" and red are "toxic" or "unlawful."

This kind of clarity is critical.

As one Zety survey respondent said, "I have never reported any issue to HR because I did not trust them. The lady in charge of HR was a gossiper and I did not want any of my personal issues known to everyone in the company."

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