A quarter of employees (24%) think challenging issues like bullying and harassment are swept under the carpet in their organisation, finds a new CIPD report. This is despite the impact of the #MeToo movement. The report is based on two large-scale surveys, one of employers and one of employees. It shows that 15% of workers have experienced bullying in the last three years, while 4% say they’ve been sexually harassed at work and 8% have experienced other forms of harassment. More than half (53%) of people who’ve been bullied or harassed in the last three years did not report the latest incident.

The research explores whether the increased focus on sexual harassment, for example through high-profile scandals reported in the media and the #MeToo movement, has changed workplace attitudes and practices. Encouragingly, there has been positive change in the past two years in employees’ confidence about tackling sexual harassment: a third (33%) feel more confident to challenge it and almost the same proportion (29%) feel more confident to raise a complaint about it. An even bigger proportion (38%) say they feel more confident to challenge other forms of inappropriate behaviour like bullying or racism.

It’s much easier for people to assess how their own attitudes have changed over the past two years compared with how their organisation may or may not have changed. Many employees may not be in a position to make an informed judgement, and so it’s not surprising that one in five (21%) employees don’t know if there have been changes in their organisation around sexual harassment. A further half report that there haven’t been any organisational developments, but it’s still encouraging that one in six say their organisation takes reports of sexual harassment more seriously and is more aware of sexual harassment than it was before.

A perception-reality gap

Our findings draw attention to the serious problem of bullying and harassment in UK workplaces and the devastating impact unfair treatment can have on individuals and organisations. They reveal a continued reliance on formal processes and procedures to deal with conflict and evidence of a serious perception–reality gap.

Employers’ and people managers’ confidence to deal with conflict is not matched by the experience of employees who have been on the receiving end of it. We find a good level of confidence shown by employers and employees around people’s ability to speak up at work but a less-than-satisfactory resolution rate: under half of employees (44%) experiencing conflict report that the conflict or difficult relationship has so far been fully or largely resolved.

Line managers: The problem or solution?

The report highlights the critical importance of line management in both causing and preventing bullying and harassment at work. Four in 10 (40%) of those who’ve been bullied or harassed say their manager was responsible, while a third (34%) of employers said one of the top barriers to effective conflict management is that managers don’t have the confidence to challenge inappropriate behaviour. However, the research also shows that managers who’ve received training can help to stop conflict from occurring and are much better at fostering healthy relationships in their team. And when conflict does occur, they can help to resolve the issue more quickly and effectively

In response to the findings, the CIPD is calling for employers to:

  • Encourage a speak up culture with a clear complaints procedure that’s well-publicised, so staff know how to raise concerns, and who to turn to if their manager is the instigator.
  • Be aware that there could be times when it’s appropriate to try and resolve the issue informally first, given that bullying and harassment can cover a wide spectrum of behaviour that may, in some cases, be unintentional.
  • Increase investment in people management training for managers, and provide them with specific training to help them prevent and manage conflict at work, such as by having difficult conversations.

The CIPD has published new practical guidance for people managers alongside the new research, to help them prevent and manage conflict at work.

We need to build truly inclusive, ‘speak up’ cultures

The report highlights key challenges for people professionals in how they guide organisations in handling conflict at work. It’s encouraging that employees show a willingness to speak up if they feel they are being unfairly treated at work, but if the organisation’s response falls far short of what’s needed, people’s confidence could be short-lived. Much more focus is needed by organisations to create genuinely inclusive cultures that recognise and nip conflict in the bud, respond quickly and sensitively to complaints, and ensure people managers are part of the solution and not the problem.

A concerning finding is that one in five (20%) employees agree that people in my team sometimes reject others for being different. An inclusive workplace is built on an acceptance – and celebration – of every individual, regardless of background, identity or circumstances. Attitudes and behaviours do not have to come in the form of overt prejudice for someone to feel excluded, and so the level of disagreement with this statement is a reminder that organisations need to be alert to any hint of a working environment that doesn’t embrace diversity and tolerance.

Employers, as well as individuals, will suffer if they don’t treat complaints seriously and the culture doesn’t encourage openness and a willingness to challenge inappropriate behaviour. Positive relationships at work should be underpinned by an open and collaborative management style, good teamworking, healthy interactions with peers and managers, and an ethos of dignity and respect.

About the author

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

More thought leadership

Thought leadership
How are organisations transforming their HR operating models?

We look at the main focus areas and share practical examples from organisations who are optimising their HR operating model

Thought leadership
HR operating models

Our series on current practices, future models and successful transformations

Thought leadership
Do current HR operating models serve future needs?

We look at what’s driving change in HR structures, what emerging models look like and what to consider when evolving your current model

Thought leadership
Leveraging L&D tech to organisational advantage

How can L&D teams can engage with new technologies like generative AI to impact performance?