Bad behavior at work is once again in the spotlight as new research shows a significant portion of workers, especially younger ones, have experienced workplace harassment.
A survey by Deloitte reveals that 61% of Gen-Z and 49% of Millennials have experienced harassment or microaggressions in the past year. Eighty percent say they reported the behavior to their company, but around a third say their concerns were not adequately addressed.
Women, nonbinary and LGBTQ+ individuals responded that they were less likely to report the harassment. This survey comes on the heels of a global survey by Gallup earlier this year which found that 23% of all workers have experienced harassment.
A Pervasive Problem
There’s no arguing that there should be no place or tolerance for violence or harassment at work, so why is it such a widespread phenomenon?
A toxic workplace environment can often be attributed to some common problems with top leadership, specifically when inexperienced, unconscious or indifferent leaders are involved. Unfortunately, I’ve observed these three types of leaders tend to allow workplace harassment to take place on their watch.
I’ve witnessed many leaders get promoted to a leadership role that they weren’t ready for. They either lack maturity, don’t have subject matter expertise or leadership experience, or a combination of those factors. In the most egregious of situations, I’ve seen a proven, high-quality team be led to disastrous results because of inadequate leadership. The leader’s behavior was driven by their insecurity, and they led with power games, treated people poorly and had all their talented direct reports leave within a year.
I remember one client who worked for such a manager who had no emotional intelligence or leadership experience—and who was promoted because they had subject matter expertise only. We worked on ways to cope with the leader’s undermining, belittling, micromanaging and even gaslighting of her employees, because this behavior can wreak havoc on someone’s self-esteem.
This leader was able to break down relationships my client had formed with other key leaders, so she was even prevented from going to other critical stakeholders in the company to express her concerns. When my client filed a formal complaint with data that could be verified by many people, both the leader and the company turned on her. She had no recourse but to leave.
Leaders who are unconscious are simply blind to what’s happening under their noses. They only see what they want to see and choose to ignore the rest.
This can become even more exacerbated when the unconscious leader is working with a “cheerleader” coach, who focuses only on strengths rather than pointing out and working on potential blind spots, weaknesses and other leadership gaps.
As an example, if managing up is a strength of a particular leader, a “cheerleader” coach will encourage them to continue to hone that behavior so that their relationships with their leaders are solid—solid enough to protect them from recourse, even if they are unknowingly condoning or participating in workplace harassment.
I think the most toxic type of leaders are the indifferent ones. They are aware of problems like harassment, but they will overlook them if they get in the way of getting what they want. They tend to be so overly focused on themselves or the business tasks at hand that they avoid dealing with possible harassment.
This is often paired with hypocrisy when senior leaders say they are concerned about workplace harassment but turn a blind eye to it. It sends a message to employees that the policies don’t actually apply.
LGBTQ+ Are At Risk
Another recent study by Deloitte reveals that more than four out of 10 LGBTQ+ people have experienced non-inclusive behavior at work. Those behaviors include unwanted comments or jokes of a sexual nature, disparaging comments about their gender identity or sexual orientation, and being excluded from informal interactions or conversations.
The survey of over 5,400 LGBTQ+ people shows that most of the behaviors happen in a physical workplace rather than when workers are virtual. Over 60% of respondents said the behaviors happened at work, such as in an office or factory, compared to 25% who reported the behaviors happening while working virtually.
Reporting of these behaviors continues to be a problem. Of those survey respondents who didn’t report non-inclusive behavior to their employer, 40% said they were concerned their complaint would not be taken seriously.
Leaders need to make sure they create a company culture where these behaviors are not tolerated, but they also need to make sure they enable all employees to be able to report their concerns without repercussion.
What’s The Solution?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released new guidance for workplace harassment. Some of the recommendations include creating and regularly disseminating a company-wide anti-harassment policy, making anonymous reporting such as hotlines and websites available to workers, holding training regularly and acknowledging and rewarding managers who take action that prevents harassment.
I especially love the last recommendation because managers who do that truly lead by example. They are approaching the problem and being championed to call out this behavior to make the company culture better.
Employees who are experiencing workplace harassment should lodge complaints, and if no resolution is presented by the organization, they likely have little other choice than to attempt to navigate a new role under a different leader in the organization or exit their role there. Leaders who choose to ignore feedback about toxic behavior will likely continue to face talent leaving in search of other opportunities.