In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the spotlight on corporate workplace misconduct shone on bribery, corruption, and unethical business practices. But in the last three years, as new scandals have dominated the headlines, the focus has shifted to sexual harassment, bullying, and discrimination and remains top of the agenda for 2020.

According to a survey of 1,000 stewards of organizational culture at enterprises in the US and UK, sexual harassment is the leading form of misconduct they feel should be addressed proactively. Around 67% of respondents said this should be the main focus of their organization, followed closely by bullying in the workplace and racism in the workplace, with 66% and 65% of the response respectively.

Sexual harassment in the workplace

Between half and three-quarters of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment while at work, according to TUC research. In the US, research from the EEOC paints a similar picture, with studies finding that anywhere from 25% to 85% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

The numbers are highly divergent. But researchers concluded that not only do the majority of sexual harassment incidents go unreported but also that many individuals do not label certain forms of unwelcome sexually based behaviors – even if they view them as problematic or offensive – as “sexual harassment“.

While it’s clear the majority of employers have a positive approach to gender equality and are seeking to tackle sexual misconduct, there is still much work to be done on fostering an inclusive and misconduct-free workplace.

Along with a robust framework and policies to counter any potential harassment or discrimination, the CIPD advises employers to implement a robust process for recording complaints and investigations. These tools should include the names of the people involved, relevant dates, the nature and frequency of incidents, any actions taken, and other relevant information.

Sexual harassment displaces financial misbehavior

Unethical business practices are still very front of mind however along with financial misbehavior like fraud but with 50% or less of the response rate, it’s clear that interpersonal misconduct is the clear focus for HR, D&I, legal and compliance leaders alike.

The challenge for 2020 is encouraging employees to report misconduct so the stewards of organizational culture can get an accurate picture of the problem. When it comes to harassment specifically, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimates that one in three complaints it handles include a harassment allegation. But the body also believes that 75% of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported.

From these and other psychologically focused studies, we know that the two main reasons people do not Speak Up about misconduct are fear of retaliation and an expectation that nothing will be done. In the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp we also understand that shame and cultural norms contribute to allow sexual harassment to go underreported.

With this being the case it’s clear that incumbent tools and processes are not working, forcing people to take matters into their own hands, increasingly turning to social media to voice their concerns.

Social activism on the rise for employees

Law firm Herbert Smith Freehills recently surveyed 375 board members and senior management in organizations employing more than 1,000 staff and with over £250m in annual sales.

It found 95% of companies expected a rise in the number of employees using social media such as Twitter to raise complaints and concerns about their company over the next five years. These same respondents also believe employee activism could cost as much as 25% of global revenue in financial and reputational damage.

The only way to address this looming challenge is to give employees tools that they can relate to and feel empowered by. Ultimately this is the only way to build a culture where employees feel safe to Speak Up about behaviors that concern them.