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Interim Executive Report on the NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey

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To provide a baseline for subsequent comparison and to identify issues for additional action, the NIH Workplace and Harassment Survey was developed, tested, and administered to NIH staff from January 28 to March 25, 2019.Of the 15,794 respondents to the NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey, 21.6% have experienced some form of sexual harassment, with 18% experiencing gender harassment, 10.3% experiencing unwanted sexual attention, and 0.3% experiencing sexual coercion during the 12 months prior to survey administration.These rates of sexual harassment may appear lower than documented generally among academic institutions, but there are a number of differences, including the 12-month reporting timeframe, that could account for the lower rates of sexual harassment found in this survey relative to others.

Women have higher rates of sexual harassment experiences than men (26.9% vs. 12.0%), but it is important to note that transgender staff and other gender identities, although small in number, reported a high rate of harassment (44.8%). Sexual minority staff also reported considerably higher rates of harassment than heterosexuals, indicating that sexual and gender minorities are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. Age is strongly and inversely associated with harassment, and trainees are nearly twice as likely to report harassment as non-trainees. These and other characteristics associated with harassment provide initial directions regarding who should receive greater prevention outreach, and support efforts from the NIH to reduce harassment. 

Supervisors play an important role in providing an organizational climate that facilitates or deters harassment. Perceived gender bias, unfairness in decision making, inadequate valuing of work, and inadequate consideration of staff opinions are associated with the prevalence of gender and sexual harassment in the workplace. NIH’s perceived inadequacy of responsiveness to supervisors who do not act as role models also is associated with harassment. Although NIH employs substantially more women than men, some jobs are still perceived as being traditionally performed by men, and NIH employees in those jobs are more likely to report harassment.

Those who reported harassment in the past 12 months were asked to provide additional details on the experience that had the greatest effect on them. These experiences occurred predominately at the NIH, not at conferences or social events. The perpetrator was more often a man than a woman. Perpetrators also were more likely to be an NIH employee and someone other than their supervisor, but since the population of those working at NIH are mostly NIH employees in nonsupervisory rose, these findings more likely reflect the proportion of these types of workers in the NIH workforce than the characteristics of those more likely to commit harassing acts.

When asked to consider the harassment experience that had the greatest effect on them, nearly half of those who had experienced some form of harassment did not tell or report the event to anyone, and most who did tell someone confided only to a co-worker, not to more formal reporting entities. Survey responses provide a number of possible reasons for this hesitancy to talk about or report the event. Most (77.4%) did not report because they didn’t think the experience was serious enough to do so. To a lesser degree, futility and potential negative repercussions also were cited as reasons not to report. Among those who did report, their experience with the person or entity to whom they reported the event were generally positive, but they did note a number of negative experiences within the work unit that could dissuade those who have experienced harassment from further reporting (e.g., being ignored or shunned by co-workers). These findings provide some direction for potential interventions to encourage greater reporting and reduce the repercussions of reporting.

The NIH Workplace and Sexual Harassment Survey was developed, tested, and administered to NIH staff from January 28 to March 25, 2019.A conceptual model developed by a panel of sexual harassment experts (see Figure 1 for simplified version) served as the basis for survey development. The NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) Diversity Working Group presented to the ACD on the progress of the survey development and the ACD endorsed the proposed approach.When possible, the items measuring these concepts were drawn from previously developed and validated survey items and scales (e.g., Sexual Experiences Questionnaire, Workplace Incivility Questionnaire, PROMIS Global Physical and Mental Health items).  Cognitive testing was performed on items, particularly modified or newly developed items, to ensure that participants understood and responded to the items as intended.Pilot testing was conducted on an Internet polling panel of 5000 participants to test original vs. modified response options of the key survey items.The survey was revised based on cognitive and pilot testing, and the resulting survey was administered to NIH staff by a contractor using Qualtrics.To protect the confidentiality, once the survey was closed, the contractor deleted all personally identifiable information used in recruiting participants (e.g. email addresses) and was instructed not to provide breakdowns of any analyses with < 15 participants in a cell.Only the contractor, not any NIH staff, have access to the resulting deidentified dataset.

Sexual Harrassment chart showing the flow chart diagram of Gender harrassment, Unwanted sexual attention, and Sexual coercion in relation to Jon Outcomes, Health Outcomes, Non-sexual harassment, Organizational Climate, and Job Gender context

Figure 1. Simplified conceptual model of the elements of sexual harassment

All NIH employees, trainees, guest researchers, and volunteers with valid email addresses were invited to participate.Contract employees for whom their contracting agency gave permission to be surveyed were invited to participate. In all, 36,228 emails were sent to valid email addresses and 15,794 completed the survey, resulting in a response rate of 44.0%.

To assess non-response bias,1 NIH Federal employees who participated in the survey were compared on gender, age, and NIH Institute, Center, Office (ICO) classification from the NIH Federal employee human resources (HR) data.Demographic data for the population of trainees and contractors were not available; therefore, response bias analyses are limited to the NIH Federal employees.NIH Federal employee survey respondents and the NIH population of Federal employees were generally comparable, but females were slightly overrepresented among respondents (62% of respondents vs. 58% of the population) and respondents were younger than the population (40% of respondents age 18-44 vs. 32% of population).Goodness of fit analyses indicated statistically significant differences on gender, age, and ICO between NIH Federal employee respondents and the NIH employee population which may necessitate weighted adjustments in subsequent analyses of the NIH Federal employees.

1Non-response bias refers to possible differences between those who choose to respond to a survey or specific questions within a survey versus those who did not respond. If those who chose not to respond to the survey are substantially different from those who responded, it may not be appropriate to assume that the results from those who responded represent everyone who were asked to respond to the survey.

Gender and sexual harassment experiences were assessed using the 25 items of the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire (SEQ)2 The SEQ assesses a range of gender and sexual harassment experiences from saying “something insulting about your gender” to having “sex against your will.”Respondents were instructed to indicate unwanted or offensive experiences in the last 12 months while working at the NIH, and with persons with whom they interacted because of their NIH work, regardless of whether these unwanted or offensive experiences occurred while on NIH property or elsewhere.From the 25 items, the following key sexual harassment indicators were obtained:

  • Any harassment - report of one or more experiences on any of the 25 SEQ items in the past 12 months
  • Any gender harassment -report of one or more experiences on any of the gender harassment subscale items in the past 12 months
  • Any unwanted sexual attention - report of one or more experiences on any of the unwanted sexual attention subscale items in the past 12 months
  • Any sexual coercion – report of one or more experiences on any of the sexual coercion subscale items in the past 12 months
  • Multiple harassment experiences– report of two or more experiences on any of the SEQ items in the past 12 months, regardless of the type of harassment experienced.

The prevalence of sexual harassment experienced in the past 12 months among respondents was as follows:

Any Harassment


Any Gender Harassment


Any Unwanted Sexual Attention


Any Sexual Coercion


Multiple Harassment Experiences


2Fitzgerald, Louise F., Vicki J. Magley, Fritz Drasgow, and Craig R. Waldo. "Measuring sexual harassment in the military: the sexual experiences questionnaire (SEQ—DoD)." Military Psychology 11, no. 3 (1999): 243-263.

To identify those more at risk for experiencing sexual harassment (and who therefore might benefit from more targeted or intensive harassment prevention efforts), the harassment variables above were broken down by sociodemographic and work characteristics. (Note that breakdowns for any sexual coercion are not reported because cell sizes would have resulted in <15 among the 41 respondents reporting this type of sexual harassment).




Other Gender Identity*







Any harassment





Gender harassment





Unwanted sexual attention





Multiple harassment





* Other gender identity combines responses of transgender man, transgender woman, genderqueer, questioning, and something else.

Sexual Orientation



Gay and Lesbian










Any harassment






Gender harassment






Unwanted sexual attention






Multiple harassment






* Other combines responses of asexual, questioning, and something else.

















Any harassment







Gender harassment







Unwanted sexual attention







Multiple harassment










Not Trainee




Any harassment



Gender harassment



Unwanted sexual attention



Repeated harassment




Note:  Trainee combines those who reported being trainees, fellows, or students; those reporting other position type (administrative, staff scientist, etc.) were coded as “not trainees”, but note that respondents could indicate more than one position type, and further analyses are needed to disambiguate trainees from non-trainees.

In addition to these variables, there were significant but smaller associations between any harassment experience in the past 12 months and:

  • Intramural:  Intramural (24.3%) vs. not intramural (19.9%)
  • Appointment Type: Guest researchers (25.2%) vs. contractors (17.5%)
  • Years at NIH: From 0-4 (23.8%) to 30+ (13.6%)
  • Disability:  Has disability (29.5%) vs. not (20.9%)
  • Education: From advanced degree (22.0%) to high school (12.2%)
  • Marital Status: All other than married (26.2%) vs. married (18.4%)
  • Race: White (23.1%) vs. Black (19.6%) or Asian (13.9%)
  • Ethnicity: Hispanic (24.1%) vs. not Hispanic (20.9%)

To determine factors within the work unit that contribute to sexual harassment, various work unit characteristics were broken down by whether the respondent indicated they experienced harassment in the last 12 months. NIH staff who had been harassed were less likely to believe NIH would intervene as compared to those not harassed. Some examples below:

If a supervisor were to say that women are taking jobs away from men who are more qualified, how likely is it that NIH, once aware, would intervene to stop the supervisor from making such statements?


Total Respondents



Extremely likely




Very likely




Moderately likely




Slightly likely




Not likely at all




Don’t know




As shown in the table above, 28.4% of respondents who indicated harassment believed NIH would be only slightly likely or not at all likely to intervene in a case of supervisor gender bias, whereas only 8.1% of those not harassed felt the same way. 


Do you consider the job you do to be traditionally done by men or by women?


Total Respondents



Traditionally mostly men




Traditionally more men than women




Traditionally equally men and women




Traditionally more women than men




Traditionally mostly women




There is a larger percentage of those in traditionally male jobs indicating being harassed vs. not, but the same is true for those in more traditionally female jobs.  Only for those who endorse being in jobs traditionally done equally by men and women are there more who are not harassed than harassed. 

When your supervisor makes decisions that affect salaries, other professional rewards, evaluations, promotions, and work assignments of people in your work unit, how fair are those decisions?


Total Respondents



Extremely fair




Very fair




Moderately fair




Slightly fair




Not fair at all




I don’t know




More than half of not-harassed respondents (51.7%) believe their supervisors to be extremely or very fair, compared to only 35.2% of harassed respondents.
In addition to these variables, there were similar associations between any harassment experience in the past 12 months and:

  • Supervisor valuing staff’s work:  20.6% of harassed respondents indicated a little or not at all compared to 8.0% of not harassed respondents; and, 54.2% of harassed respondents indicated a great deal or a lot compared to 70.2% of not harassed respondents.
  • Supervisor considers staff opinions: 26.2% of harassed respondents indicated a little or not at all compared to 12.8% of not harassed respondents; and 23.2% of harassed respondents indicated a great deal or a lot compared to 31.6% of not harassed respondents.
  • Perceived responsiveness of NIH to take action on supervisor talking about sex: 16.2% of harassed respondents indicated slightly likely or not likely at all compared to 4.5% of not harassed respondents; and 51.4% of harassed respondents indicated extremely likely or very likely compared to 73.3% of not harassed respondents.
  • Perceived responsiveness of NIH to act on supervisor coercing behavior for a date: 14.1% of harassed respondents indicated slightly likely or not likely at all compared to 4.8% of not harassed respondents; and 53.8% of harassed respondents indicated extremely of very likely compared to 71.7% of not harassed respondents.

Respondents who indicated having one or more sexual harassment experiences were asked to reflect on the experience in the last 12 months that had the greatest effect on them and to indicate the characteristics of the perpetrator and the environment. The following are the percentages for any harassment experience; however, comparable percentages were found for those who reported more specifically on any gender harassment or any unwanted sexual attention experience that had the greatest effect on them.

  • The experience occurred in a building owned or leased by NIH (88%)
  • The experience occurred during a conference (5.5%)
  • The experience occurred at a social event in which multiple NIH personnel were present (12.5%)

The perpetrator of the harassment was:

  • More likely to be a man (71.8%) than a woman (22.8%)
  • More likely to be an NIH employee (78.3%) than a contractor (13.5%)
  • Slightly more likely to be in the same work unit (57.2%) vs. not (42.8%)
  • More likely not a supervisor (64.6%) than a supervisor (35.4%)
  • More likely not to be someone who could influence work opportunities (75.1%) than someone who could influence work opportunities (24.9%)

In response to the harassment experience that had the greatest effect on them:

  • 49.0% did not tell or report the event to anyone or any entity listed below
  • 42.1% talked to a coworker
  • 17.0% talked to an NIH supervisor or manager
  • 3.7% talked to someone from human resources or the Civil program
  • 2.7% talked to an organization or agency outside the NIH
  • 2.5% talked to someone at the NIH Ombudsman’s office
  • 1.9% talked to someone at the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Those who indicated that they reported the sexual harassment experience to any person (including co-worker) or entity within the NIH were asked about NIH’s response to this report.

  • Respondents indicated that supervisors talked to the perpetrator 14.9% of the time, with 22.3% indicating they did not know if the supervisor talked to the perpetrator
  • The complaint was investigated 7.1% of the time, with 16.1% indicating they did not know if the complaint was investigated
  • The perpetrator was punished 2.2% of the time, with 20.4% indicating they did not know if the perpetrator was punished
  • If a respondent talked to a co-worker, they reported that most co-workers did not encourage them to drop the complaint (89.4%).  If they talked to a supervisor, most supervisors did not encourage them to drop the complaint (83.3%) (Note that for other reporting entities, the cell sizes were too small to report.)
  • Most co-workers (96.3%) and supervisors (87.1%) did not tell the person that they were partly responsible for the harassment that occurred
  • Of those reporting to each of the individuals or entities below, the percentage of respondents who indicated their report was taken seriously by that individual or entity was:
    • Co-worker (82%)
    • HR/Civil (71.1%)
    • Ombudsman (68.1%)
    • Supervisor (66.2%)

Of the respondents who reported talking to someone about the harassment experience that had the greatest effect on them, the following are the percentages of those who indicated the following work-related outcomes resulting from talking to someone about the experience.

No longer feel a part of the work unit


Overall working conditions got worse


Slighted, ignored, or ridiculed by others at work


Gossiped about me in an unkind way


Considered a troublemaker at work


Humiliated around co-workers


Lost respect from co-workers


Work performance evaluated unfairly


Work assignments got worse


Did not receive a promotion


Lose perks or privileges at work


Denied training opportunities


Reassigned, detailed, or transferred against my wishes


Reassigned, detailed, or transferred at my request


Of those who did not talk to anyone about the sexual harassment experience that they indicated had the greatest effect on them, most (77.4%) indicated that they didn’t think the experience was serious enough to report to anyone.  Other reasons for not talking to someone about the experience included:

  • didn’t think anything helpful would come from reporting the experience (38.3%)
  • career might suffer if experience was reported (23.5%)
  • would feel uncomfortable reporting experience (21.2%)
  • would feel bad if NIH took action against the perpetrator (17.9%)
  • concerned co-workers would be angry if the experience was reported (13.8%)
  • afraid to report the experience (10.8%)
  • concerned someone would hurt or get back at you (9.9%)
  • didn’t know how to report the experience (5.5%)
  • didn’t think anyone would believe them (5.2%). 

Among all respondents (those experiencing or not experiencing harassment in the past 12 months), most indicated that they had not observed their supervisor dealing with a sexist or racist remark (82.9%), dealing with a report of harassment (87.3%), or doing anything specific to address harassment (69.5%). Of supervisors observed dealing with a sexist or racist remark (n = 2483), 59.5% indicated that the supervisor did not speak up. Of supervisors observed responding to a report of harassment (n = 1963), 43.3% did not respond appropriately according to the respondents. Of the supervisor actions to address harassment, the following were actions observed by respondents who were aware of any harassment in the past 12 months in their work unit: encouraged the respondent to take anti-harassment training (28.0%), served as an example of how to treat co-workers respectfully (24.8%), provided information on the NIH anti-harassment program (20.2%), provided work time for the respondent to review the NIH anti-harassment policies (16.7%), and convened a meeting to discuss NIH anti-harassment policies (10.6%).

Approximately a third of respondents (33.2%) had not read either the NIH policy statement or the NIH manual chapter addressing harassment and personal relationships in the workplace. Most (80.5%) reported that they understand the NIH policies and procedures to address harassment moderately well or better (e.g., very well, extremely well). Most (84.3%) understand how an employee can get help if she or he experiences harassment. Most respondents believe NIH is doing an excellent (33.9%) or good (43.6%) job at encouraging people to report harassment problems experienced during the course of their work at NIH. Respondents believe that there is no likelihood (82.8%) or only a slight likelihood (10.4%) that they will be harassed in the next 12 months while working at the NIH.

To assess the potential effects of the experience of harassment on respondents, the survey asked a number of questions about job satisfaction, work avoidance, and physical and mental health status.  This interim report provides data only on those who reported harassment so comparisons with those who did not report harassment in the past 12 months will be addressed in the final report.  Among those who reported harassment:

  • 81.2% indicated that they strongly agree, agree, or somewhat agree with the statement “In general, I like working here.” 
  • 23.9% indicated that they often or many times do not want to go to work
  • 5.2% indicated that they often or many times spend time at work doing non-work activities
  • 2.4% indicated that they often or many times avoid going to work
  • 34.4% indicated being very likely or extremely likely to seek other employment
  • 91.2% rate their health as good, very good, or excellent
  • 86.0% rate their mental health as good, very good, or excellent
  • 87.5% rate their satisfaction with social relationships good, very good, or excellent

The interim report provides only a preliminary analysis, and the data needs to be further analyzed over the coming months to understand better the factors that contribute to harassment at the NIH and refine policies and interventions based on these analyses. The preliminary data do not provide comparisons of the potential consequences of harassment among those who have been harassed or not in the past 12 months. These analyses will help assess the degree to which sexual harassment may affect the workforce of the NIH. Workplace incivility and bullying also were hypothesized as predisposing factors for sexual harassment. Scoring the Workplace Incivility scale as well as other scales embedded in the survey questionnaire need to be completed. Non-response bias also needs to be further evaluated and different methods evaluated to reduce potential bias.

There are many additional analyses to perform that can provide a more in-depth understanding of the relationships among survey variables. For example, gender likely interacts with other variables such as gender of the supervisor and the traditional nature of the work (mostly men vs. women) on harassment. These interactions need further exploration. Additionally, while both univariate and multivariate statistical analyses were performed on these associations between groups of variables and harassment experiences, further modeling analyses (e.g., Structural Equation Modeling, Logistic Regression Models) are planned to test the hypothesized relationships from the conceptual model and assess the relative contribution of these various indicators to the experience of harassment.

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