Reporting misconduct - it's time to speak out | WISE Workplace

PUBLISHED - 10 August 2010

Many people have experienced or witnessed bullying and aggressive behaviour in the office.

But what stops them from taking action when they see inappropriate conduct? Why do most people fail to act?

A recent international study found three key areas preventing people from reporting cases of bullying or misconduct at work.

The study conducted by Rowe, Wilcox and Gadlin (2009) analysed information gathered from thousands of cases presented to an Ombudsman over a 10- year period.

 It found the main reasons for the reluctance to act against workplace misconduct were:

  • Fear of loss of relationships and a loss of privacy
  • Fear of unspecified “bad consequences” or retaliation and
  • Insufficient evidence  

The study identified barriers in three domains:

  • Perceptions of managers
  • The complaints system and
  • Personal barriers

Perceptions of managers
The perception of managers was a critical issue. Many people cited “fear of bad consequences” that prevented them from making a complaint or reporting an issue.

The approach of the immediate supervisor was crucial. Supervisors are often in a position to punish or reward workplace behaviour.

The research found line managers were often seen as being “rewarded” by senior management for inappropriate conduct. That is, they were rewarded for achieving key performance measurements, but their behaviour to achieve those measures was not examined.

“Affinity Group Loyalty” was also reported as an issue. This is where strong group identity is present (usually through union membership, family or recruit classes).

If a misbehaving group member reaches key work targets, other group members can be oblivious to their misbehaviour.  In these cases, complaints against the offender are often not believed or taken seriously.

Complaints Systems

This is also the case with systems that offer little flexibility. For example, zero tolerance policies dissuaded people from reporting. This is because they prescribe when and where misconduct should be reported and what action will follow – formal investigation and punishment.

People who like to resolve their own problems and don’t want to get others into trouble are less likely to report misconduct if a zero tolerance approach is in place.
Systems that require high levels of proof before action also dissuade reporters.

This is a major issue for minority groups who feel the majority are “sexist” or “racist”. They feel they would not be believed without “evidence”.

People also hesitated to report bad behaviour where the only evidence was their word against another.

Perceived or real injustice within the system also created a barrier to reporting. When it is believed that important people get treated differently from more junior employees workers are less likely to complain.

Personal Barriers

The research revealed an extensive and varied range of personal barriers to reporting workplace misconduct.
The most common were:

  • Fear of loss of relationships and loss of privacy
  • Fear of unspecified “bad consequences” or retaliation.
The study showed people did not want to risk harming a relationship with colleagues, managers, friends and family by being seen to act when it was not “their business.”

And when people were not offended by conduct deemed to be “illegal” or “immoral” by employers they were unlikely to report it because of the risk to their own relationships.

Fear of reprisal via punishment or adverse impact on career progression was very common – particularly if the line manager was the wrong-doer. 

The study found many people were scared for their personal safety, particularly if the offender was likely to be sacked. There was little faith the employer or police could protect them from a revenge attack. 

The fear of reprisal was of greater concern in fluid or diverse workforces with fewer long-term relationships that foster trust.

It was even worse in environments where the economy was struggling, unemployment rates were high and retrenchments were on the table.

The lack of a “fall back position” created greater concern of reprisal. Single breadwinner families and those with few employment choices had no fall back if their actions had adverse impacts.

Solutions: How to bring down the barriers
By understanding what prevents people from reporting misconduct in the workplace, we can develop more effective reporting systems and a culture of responsiveness. Creating systems that actively seek to lower barriers and focusing on key cultural issues will help bring down the personal barriers.

Systems should provide safe and confidential avenues to seek advice and support in addition to mediation options and self help.

Solutions such as formal and informal options for dispute resolution help to reduce perceptions that an organisation will overreact or do nothing. They give people control and choices.

However, breaches of anti-discrimination legislation, occupational health and safety laws and criminal conduct such as fraud and assaults require urgent action.

If the employer is serious about bullying and harassment, it may be necessary to take the decision away from those who report.

Clearly articulated management policies will increase trust in the system and the culture.

Finally, the report highlighted challenges presented by privacy laws.

A balance must be found on the amount of information given to employees when an employer takes action and what penalties are applied.

Without clear information about these issues, employees can get the wrong signals.

They may incorrectly attribute a redundancy, early retirement or promotion to the consequences of a misconduct complaint. This can seriously damage trust in the company’s procedures.

Employers must adopt practices that reward people for coming forward. They must develop a work culture that displays a firm commitment to fairness and procedural justice.

Mary Rowe, Linda Wilcox, Howard Gadlin, 2009, ‘Dealing with – or Reporting – “Unacceptable” Behavior’. Journal of the International Ombudsman Association Volume 2 Number 1.