Closing The Gap

Almost half of men say they don't know what's an acceptable compliment to give a coworker

pixelfit | E+ | Getty Images

Despite growing conversation around workplace harassment, thanks to the #MeToo movement and high-profile cases of powerful executives, like Harvey Weinstein, using their position to gain sexual favors, workers still aren't sure what they're supposed to do when they encounter harassment in their own workplaces.

Instead, U.S. workers both acknowledge that workplace harassment happens but remain "alarming ambivalent" about it, according to a new survey of 1,227 U.S. employees, age 18 and older, released by global HR consultancy Randstad.

More than half, 51 percent, of those surveyed said they know a woman who has been sexually harassed at work, but half also admitted they'd never spoken up after hearing a colleague make an inappropriate comment about a person of the opposite sex.

The data shows workers are not as concerned about these issues as we might expect to them to be, despite serious discussions around gender happening in the #MeToo era, Audra Jenkins, chief diversity and inclusion officer for Randstad North America, told CNBC Make It.

"The exceptions appear to be Millennials as well as minorities, who were more likely to recognize and report gender discrimination," Jenkins said.

Confusion may be to blame.

While most workers know what clearly crosses the line of inappropriate work behavior and comments—such as groping or requests for sexual favors—acts like commenting on someone's appearance or outfit tend to fall into a grey area that workers are unsure how to navigate.

Almost half, 46 percent, of men told Randstad they no longer know what compliments are ok to give a coworker, because they fear the remark could be potentially misinterpreted as sexual harassment. The same percentage of men also admitted they hold negative views of feminism and the #MeToo movement.

"One of the reason why we see this is that some men feel they are being villainized. They think all men are being painted as workplace harassers. They worry any comment they make can be taken out of context and then their career could be ruined for this one statement," says Jenkins. "But if they are advocating and supporting women and being a good ally, they wouldn't need to worry about these movements."

Of course, how you become a strong ally appears to be a huge challenge in itself for most.

More than half of employees surveyed said they are unsure what they can personally do to improve gender equality at their workplace, and 51 percent said their companies aren't doing enough to address the issue.

Younger workers are most uncomfortable.

Nearly a quarter of all employees said they've felt more uncomfortable interacting with colleagues of the opposite sex over the past year, but that figure jumped to 32 percent of 25- to 34-year-old workers.

Younger staff are also more likely to find it difficult to work under and take direction from a boss of the opposite sex — almost 40 percent said this compared to only 22 percent of all workers.

While we may expect younger employees who've grown up with increased exposure to both male and female leaders to be more at ease with a superior of the opposite gender, Jenkins says maturity and inclusivity may be behind the unease. Younger workers haven't had a lot of career development or experience yet, and they may also be in the minority age group at their office, causing them to feel ill-at-ease or like they can't be their true self with older generations, says Jenkins.

It could also be due to the fact that young workers are most likely to be the target of and recognize unwanted sexual or romantic attention at work.

More than a third of 18- to 34-year-old employees said they'd experienced this, compared to 29 percent of women and 20 percent of men overall.

"Young workers are now more aware what is inappropriate behavior. Things like the #MeToo movement have made harassment more public and visible," Jenkins said. "When I used to investigate claims of harassment, workers often said they didn't know someone was trying to make sexual advances until there were very deep into a bad situation. Younger workers thought the older person was coaching them or mentoring them. The harassment was hidden. But women and men today are being educated through these movements."

Minority workers experience greater harassment.

While young workers are often victims, the odds increase if they are also non-white.

The Randstad survey found that workplace gender discrimination and harassment have a greater impact on both men and women who are racial and ethnic minorities.

More than two-thirds of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders said they knew a woman who experienced workplace harassment. Nearly 60 percent of African-Americans said the same. Only 49 percent of Caucasians did.

Diverse employees are also more likely to say their careers suffered as result of turning down romantic advances from a direct supervisor: 42 percent of African-Americans and 36 percent of Hispanics felt this way, compared to 24 percent of Caucasians.

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

Don't miss: The 10 cities where the most women outearn their partners

Arianna Huffington: Women's March, #MeToo and Time's Up will be historic moments for changes in the workplace
Arianna Huffington: Women's March, #MeToo and Time's Up will be historic moments for changes in the workplace