F&B Fear of Retaliation Focus Groups Summary Report

The 2013 Values and Culture Survey identified high fear of retaliation among F&B employees. This generated concern that misconduct was observed and not being reported due to fear of retaliation. Focus groups were designed to review the results and explore issues raised in the survey, identify areas requiring additional training or other intervention, and provide information on the overall health of the workplace climate. Sixteen focus groups engaged 112 employees from across Finance & Business, including management, non-management staff, administrative assistants, and technical services.

The Focus Groups were held December 2015 through January 2016, and facilitated by Cheryl Johnson, Executive Director for the Private Industry Council of the Central Corridor (PICCC). While participants initially expressed considerable fear about participating in the focus groups, they found the sessions to provide a “safe way” for their voices to be heard and were of greater value than anticipated. Participants were candid, constructive, and genuinely motivated to assist F&B in being an even better organization. They also expressed gratitude for the opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns.

Key Feedback

The following is a brief summary of feedback from a majority of focus group participants. This feedback does not constitute official reports of misconduct. (At the beginning of each focus group, participants were informed how to make a report of misconduct should they choose to do so.) Personnel matters at the University are managed confidentially, so participants may not have been aware of all facts and circumstances involved with a particular situation. However, perceptions and observations of employees are essential input in addressing concerns within the workplace and workplace culture.

Positive Feedback

The focus groups shared their observation that serious misconduct is rare. Participants indicated that they would report serious misconduct if observed – e.g. sexual assault, child abuse, theft, breach of confidential information such as bids, misuse of funds, etc.

Participants think a majority of employees are ethical, competent and want goals and accountability. Employees expressed appreciation for their jobs, benefits, and working for Penn State, etc. Many are also long-term employees and are loyal to the organization. The majority of managers want to build systems, processes, and provide consistent expectations.

Fear of Retaliation

Fear of retaliation was discovered not to be “the” problem, but rather a symptom of a larger problem: a perceived lack of accountability and trust. Many of the behaviors identified as retaliation do not appear to meet the legal definition. This underscores the need to provide education on what constitutes retaliation under AD67 (Disclosure of Wrongful Conduct and Protection from Retaliation) and associated behaviors. That said, real fear exists among employees that they will be the focus of retaliation if they report misconduct.


Feedback from the focus groups identified a range of inappropriate behaviors by peers and supervisors that employees observed, including:

  • bullying/intimidating behavior (including discrimination and lack of respect by managers)
  • unsafe work practices
  • misuse of university resources (including theft/damage to property)
  • abuse of time (absent/sick time/FMLA/leave, tardiness, overtime, use of internet/Facebook, slacking, sleeping on job, alcohol/drug use)
  • purposely sabotaging someone’s work and/or hindering career advancement

Culture Issues

The focus groups described a workplace culture where there is perceived lack of accountability and employees do not trust supervisors, leadership, and the process for reporting and investigating misconduct. Lack of accountability is perceived throughout the organization, including inconsistency in policy implementation, unprofessional workplace behavior, lack of addressing misconduct, and not feeling valued or permitted to share ideas.

Performance Management

Participants shared concerns that supervisors often lack the knowledge and skills they need to effectively manage others. This includes knowing and understanding policy as well as the soft skills required to navigate difficult situations. They also spoke about inconsistent decisions and the perception that not all are held to the same standards.


Respondents spoke about their experiences of supervisors and staff not communicating effectively. Reasons participants think this is caused by: a lack of opportunity, an unwillingness to engage in discussions or share information on the part of both employees and supervisors, how communication is conducted, how ideas/differences are received and discussed, and how conflict is resolved.

Reporting Concerns

A majority of employees stated they are not familiar with the reporting process or the types of issues that should be reported to the Penn State Hotline. Additionally, what happens once a report is made and the investigation process is not known and/or understood. There were concerns that the hotline is misused to report minor incidents, and/or “create trouble,” and also that it lacks confidentiality of the information reported.