Toxic Workplace Culture and Social Contagion – The ticking ‘time-bomb’ for Higher Education?


Witnessing workplace harassment and discrimination – Overcoming the ‘social contagion’ of toxic work culture

The team at ‘Talk to Spot’, a Bot driven reporting tool, commissioned research to examine the experience of witnessing workplace harassment and discrimination, the barriers to reporting such behavior to human resources, and how organisations can improve reporting procedures. The research involved a collaboration between Spot, researchers from three UK universities, and various NGOs and nonprofits that provide support for individuals with protected characteristics.

The study was conducted because understanding the witness experience can help organisations create more effective processes to tackle harassment and discrimination at work, improve communication between employees and human resources, and build healthier workplaces. The study reached 5 specific conclusions:

Finding 1: Witnessing harassment AND discrimination at work is a pressing issue.

Finding 2: Most tell others when they witness workplace harassment, but they don’t tell HR.

Finding 3: Witnesses who tell others about the incident don’t seek permission from the person who was the target of the harassment or discrimination.

Finding 4: Witnesses are worried about the consequences of reporting, and some mirror reasons given by those who are directly harassed or discriminated against.

Finding 5: Witnesses want better reporting options that allow for anonymity, and are online and automated.

The full research methodology is contained within the paper (link to follow) but of grave concern for the HE sector must be that 67% of people witnessing bad behaviour are not reporting it but telling people outside the organisation i.e. friends and family with all the associated negative impact on brand reputation.

As one parent said to the author:

“If I was thinking of one of my offspring going to university I would discuss it with family and friends and would be put off by bad stories and poor reputation for things like safety and wellbeing”.

This is the ‘social contagion’ risked by all universities if they fail to establish appropriate investigation protocols and processes and a cursory read of Twitter and other social media soon reinforces the reputational damage risked, to say nothing of the many careers ruined and lives lost.

The relevance of this to the work undertaken by the team at Intersol is that any investigation is underpinned by the first report(s) and the immediate actions arising from it/them. They form the very foundation of the subsequent investigation and where any good lawyer will probe to undermine it, and why we have developed and use a consistent investigation case management system for the sector to best ensure the fairness and reliability of investigative outcomes for ALL stakeholders.

If you’d like to know more about ‘Extraordinary Case Management’ (ECM®) in Higher Education please don’t hesitate to drop the team a line at and link to the full paper, courtesy of ‘Talk to Spot’ can be found here: Spot Workplace harassment and discrimination _Whitepaper