Despite the raised awareness around harassment and inequities in the workplace, many employers do not have adequate protections in place to prevent retaliation against whistleblowers.
This is according to a survey by EVERFI, Inc., which found that organizations that do prioritize and take proactive steps to prevent retaliation report far fewer incidents.
Retaliation is the most common claim of workplace discrimination by far and has been for the past decade. In 2019, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received five times more charges of retaliation than sexual harassment — more than all race, color, and religion-based discrimination charges combined.
The survey shows that many employers are unaware of actions that are potentially risky. Organizations view retaliatory actions narrowly, focusing on egregious acts like termination (80% of respondents say their organization would consider it retaliatory), hostile treatment (78%), discipline (75%), and demotion (74%). Fewer organizations consider changes in benefits (57%), work location (64%), or duties/work schedule (65%) to be potentially retaliatory, even though the EEOC and U.S. Supreme Court have stated that they could be.
The research also found that many organizations do not have procedures in place to prevent retaliation and safeguard employees after they come forward. Among the survey’s key findings:
- Almost one-third of companies surveyed do not have an anti-retaliation policy.
- Only 43% of employers with an anti-retaliation policy train all employees on that policy.
- Only half of organizations (52%) check in with whistleblowers to confirm that they are not experiencing retaliation, and just 19% designate someone to monitor an employee’s performance reviews to safeguard against retaliatory ratings.
- Nearly one-fifth (17%) don’t take any such steps to protect whistleblowers post-complaint.
“The findings from this survey are a wake-up call for employers,” said Elizabeth Bille, J.D., senior vice president, Workplace Culture, EVERFI. “Retaliation can lead to significant legal claims, decreased employee morale and retention, and damaged workplace cultures, so the stakes are high to get this work right. Unfortunately, our findings show that many organizations are not taking straightforward, proactive steps to prevent it from happening.”
Retaliation can happen to anyone, but some employees are more susceptible than others. The majority of responding HR professionals indicated that low-performing employees (63%) and women (62%) are sometimes or often the targets of retaliation, compared to high-performing employees (36%) and men (47%).
While employers often think retaliation is committed primarily by managers against their direct reports, this is often not the case. Nearly half of respondents (46%) said the person retaliating is sometimes or often another leader in the complainant’s chain of command, 35% said it is a leader outside of their chain of command, and 51% said it is a peer-level colleague.
Additionally, the survey found that the most common reasons for retaliation are personal feelings of anger, embarrassment, hurt, or betrayal (61%) and viewing the person as disloyal, a troublemaker, or not a team player (59%). Far less common is the belief that the complaint was knowingly false or made with bad intent (28%).
“Retaliation in the workplace is a silent crisis, and indeed, could be the next #MeToo-type issue to take the workplace by storm: it is alarmingly common, can cause significant damage, and is not on most organizations’ radar,” Bille said. “It undermines an employer’s progress on all workplace issues, from diversity and inclusion to legal compliance and mental wellness. Any organization that is working to create a healthy, inclusive, ethical working environment needs to take action to prevent retaliation.”
The survey did yield a positive revelation, indicating that prioritizing anti-retaliation efforts and implementing some straightforward procedures can pay dividends. Companies that actively communicate their anti-retaliation policies to all employees through training and communications from senior leaders are far less likely to say that retaliation occurs sometimes or often (35%) than those who take a more “check the box” communication approach, sharing via a handbook or website (65%).