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How employees respond to disruptive workplace behavior

What would you guess most employees who witness disruptive behavior at work do?

If you said “nothing,” you’d be right.

This was a key finding of the recent study, Why US Workers Remain Silent About Disruptive Behavior at Work, conducted by Warble.

According to the study, 63% of respondents witnessed behavior at work that was disruptive to culture, productivity, and/or the business, but did not report it to management or HR. As defined by the study, this behavior included a number of disruptions, including those caused by discrimination, poor management, sexual harassment, fraud, and theft.

So, why did so many employees remain silent? More than half the respondents identified multiple reasons, reflecting the complexity of the decision-making process.

employees not paying attention

A variety of fears

Employee inaction was driven by a variety of factors and fears.

The leading reason for silence (46%) was a lack of faith that any action would be taken by management, even if they did come forward.

Thirty-nine percent feared for their reputation, not wanting to be viewed as a “complainer” or “overly emotional, weak, or petty.”

Thirty-eight percent feared retaliation for speaking out, with data showing that women were 28% more likely to fear retaliation than men.

There was also an economic component, with employees whose household income was below $150,000 a year being 73% more likely to fear losing their job than employees above that income level. The research concluded that “income and financial insecurity can be a factor in whether someone decides to act.”

When the offender was a manager, 38% stayed silent.

Possibly perpetuated by a common stereotype, 32% didn’t trust Human Resources. This is a shame, as HR is meant to be helpful and trustworthy.

Finally, 26% didn’t speak up for fear of losing their job.

What can companies do?

Being a whistleblower of any kind is a hard, lonely place to be.

Given the considerable organizational costs of disruption—in terms of lost productivity, disengagement, and turnover—what can companies do to make it easier and less risky for employees to speak out?

Warble’s study identifies a few practical tactics:

  • Make sure employees have complete clarity on what kind of behavior is acceptable and what isn’t.
  • Establish anonymous feedback mechanisms so employees can feel confident about reporting bad behavior “without fear of retaliation or being labeled.”
  • Encourage open communication throughout the organization.

This last point—which rests squarely on the shoulders of management—is perhaps the most fundamental and valuable of all.  

When senior management truly establishes a workplace environment employees believe is open and fair, where employees feel free to honestly speak their minds without fear of reprisal, preventing such disruptive behavior from occurring in the first place is much easier.

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Victor Lipman is a management trainer and author. His online courses on Udemy include The Manager’s Mindset and his book is “The Type B Manager.” He has more than 20 years of Fortune 500 management experience. He has contributed regularly to Forbes and Psychology Today, and his work has appeared in Harvard Business Review.

Victor Lipman is a management trainer and author.

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