Before we start, we want to warn you: Reading this article may make you mad, because some of what we’re going to tell you is pretty depressing.
Now that you’ve been warned, let’s begin.
What happens if you decide to report the harassment
This is the high-risk choice. Reporting can really hurt your career. We hate saying that, but it’s true, and you need to know it.
If you have a great employer, reporting will probably go fine. Your employer will act quickly and with sensitivity to protect you and the workplace.
But that’s not what usually happens. For many people, reporting is a really bad experience.
I just felt really belittled, just the whole interview was not very pleasant. I ended up being really emotional and I actually thought of quitting right away.Former museum tour guide, describing how she felt after being interviewed by HR at her former employer, following her complaint of sexual harassment
I was warned that I was being a problem, that I was the only person to ever complain about this instructor, that if I continued I would likely find that other schools would hear about me being a problem and that I would probably be failed out of my program. I am still stunned by how quickly I have gone from being a valued student in my program to being an outcast.Unnamed law student who complained about sexual harassment by her instructor, as quoted in Going Public: A Survivor’s Journey from Grief to Action, by Julie Macfarlane
You get witch-hunted, you get scapegoated, you become the troublesome uppity woman; you become the woman who does not fit.Anonymous department head, who sued her employer for constructive dismissal and won, quoted in Complaint!, by Sarah Ahmed
Here’s what it looks like when things go badly.
The person you report to may be awkward and uncomfortable
The person you report to may feel like you’re burdening them with extra work or wasting their time on something that’s not really important.
They may feel scared because they know there are laws they’re supposed to follow, and they could get in trouble if they mess up. They may not know exactly what they’re allowed to say or do, and they may need to spend a lot of time documenting your conversations and checking in with HR or lawyers about how to handle things.
That can make them awkward and uncomfortable about the whole thing.
People at your workplace may gossip about you and judge you
Your report is supposed to be kept as confidential as possible. But to investigate, your employer will probably need to talk with the harasser and anyone who might have seen the harassment. They may also need to talk about it with bosses and HR.
It’s not uncommon for basically everybody at your work to find out that you made a report. When that happens, instead of empathizing and feeling bad for you, the people will often empathize instead with the harasser. They often see the harasser as being attacked out of nowhere and unjustly accused. They decide that you misunderstood or are exaggerating what happened, and they worry that the harasser will be unfairly punished.
Meanwhile, they may judge you harshly. They may blame you for handling things badly, for causing trouble and disruption, and for forcing them to “pick a side” between you and the harasser.
The whole thing is made worse by the fact that people aren’t allowed to talk openly about it, because it’s supposed to be confidential. That leaves a lot of space for gossip and rumours.
The harasser may try to ruin your reputation
Once the harasser knows you reported them, it’s very likely they will try to defend themselves by trash-talking you, and getting their friends to do it too.
They’ll try to paint you as an untrustworthy liar. They may say you made up the harassment for personal reasons, or to distract from the fact that you’re bad at your job. It’s really common for them to claim you have a drinking problem, or that you’re mentally ill.
People may decide you’re a troublemaker, and start to treat you badly
Your boss’s interactions with you, which might previously have been warm and friendly, might start to get stiff and uncomfortable. Your boss might punish you for reporting. You might get fewer shifts, or less attractive assignments. (These punishments are called reprisals and they’re so common we wrote an entire article about them.)
Your co-workers might stop helping you. They might be less willing to trade shifts with you, or teach you something you don’t know how to do. They may start to ice you out socially.
People may stop sharing opportunities with you, like jobs you might be eligible for, or opportunities for overtime or special projects.
The whole thing may snowball, and start to really hurt your career
People may stop talking about you positively. They may describe you as difficult, negative, toxic, and hard to work with. If someone asks about you, they might raise an eyebrow or make a face.
Your career may start to stall or falter. You don’t get promoted; maybe you actually get demoted. People assume it’s because you’re bad at your job.
The gossip and judgment may start to spill out past your own organization. People in your work network become less friendly. You get fewer invitations, and people start to treat you with less respect. If you start to job hunt, it may go less well than you’d expect.
All this makes you enjoy work less and start to feel bad about your career. You get mad at people who aren’t supporting you. You start taking more sick days, or turning up late, or withdrawing from work social activities you used to enjoy. You start performing less well. You might end up getting fired, or leaving on bad terms.
Who gets hurt the most by reporting
Reporting is risky for anyone. But for some people, the risk is extra high.
We’re going to take some time to unpack this, because we think it’s really important.
Reporting is extra likely to hurt your career if you:
- work at a small company
- work in a majority-male workplace
- are being harassed by a customer
- are new to your industry or employer
- don’t have a lot of friends at work
- do work where success is hard to measure
- are racialized, especially if you’re Black or Indigenous
- are 2SLGBTQIA+
- are in your 20s or early 30s
The more of those boxes you tick, the more likely it is that reporting sexual harassment will mess up your career.
A small company may handle your report badly
Small workplaces can be extra bad at handling reports, because managers there are less likely to understand the law and to have solid legal and HR support. And if your workplace is small, it’s also more likely that the person responsible for stopping the harassment may know and be friends with the harasser.
A majority-male workplace may handle your report badly
Majority-male workplaces—like mining and gas, construction, policing, the military, science, engineering, or technology—have higher levels of sexual harassment. If harassment is generally tolerated at your workplace, it’s less likely your report will be handled well.
If you’re being harassed by a customer, your report may be handled badly
Your employer may be reluctant to protect you against a customer if doing that might cost the company money. (The hospitality industry is especially notorious for tolerating high levels of harassment.) And when it’s a customer harassing you, your employer may not even be clear about what they’re legally allowed, or required, to do.
If you’re new to your industry or employer, reporting may go badly for you
That’s because when you’re new, you have less power. People haven’t known you long enough to have learned to trust you. Plus, because you’re new, you might not understand things well yet—like, who at your work you can trust.
If you don’t have a lot of friends at work, reporting may go badly for you
This is bad news for introverts and people who like to keep their work and social lives separate. If people are gossiping about you at work, friends can defend you. They can also give you a heads-up so you can protect yourself. If you don’t have friends, you’re more vulnerable.
If you do work where success is hard to measure, reporting may go badly for you
In some jobs success can be easily measured by dollars or speed or accuracy. But in most, measuring success is hard. If that’s true for you, it makes it easier for your boss to punish you by saying your work is bad, even if it’s not.
If you’re racialized and work in a majority-white environment, reporting may go badly for you
The research says that when racialized people in majority-white workplaces report harassment, other people often respond by seeing you as ungrateful and disloyal. This is especially true if you’re Black or Indigenous, because Black and Indigenous people are already stereotyped as angry and resentful. Reporting can activate all those stereotypes. That makes it less likely your report will be handled well, and it makes you more vulnerable to reputational damage.
If you’re 2SLGBTQIA+ in a non-2SLGBTQIA+ workplace, reporting may go badly for you
Like with racialized people, when 2SLGBTQIA+ people report harassment, other people see them as ungrateful and disloyal. It’s also common for 2SLGBTQIA+ people—especially trans women, nonbinary/gender-fluid people, bisexual people, and gay men—to be stereotyped as dramatic, dishonest, and untrustworthy. Butch women are often stereotyped as aggressive and threatening. Reporting harassment can activate those stereotypes. That makes it less likely your report will be handled well, which makes you more vulnerable to reputational damage.
If you’re in your twenties or early thirties, reporting may go badly for you
The younger you are, the less likely it is that your report will be taken seriously. This is a credibility issue. If you’re older, and have decades of work experience, it’s harder for people to say you’re confused or misunderstanding what’s happening. It’s also a power issue. If you’re young, you’re unlikely to have much workplace power yet, and so it’s easier for people to ignore your report.
What happens if you stay at work without reporting
This is definitely the safer choice for your career. People know that, and it’s why so few people report.
But it’s not entirely without risk.
If you decide to stay at work and try to cope with the harassment without reporting it, here’s how that can hurt your career.
- You may feel like you need to change things at work—your shifts, your projects, your work habits—to avoid the harasser. Those decisions might be bad for your career. (Like, for example, if you decide you can’t work late alone anymore, or you can’t take on a particular project.)
- You may find yourself distracted at work, because you’re worrying about the harassment or trying to avoid the harasser.
- You may find yourself withdrawing socially at work, to avoid spending time with the harasser.
- If it’s your boss who’s harassing you, they may punish you for resisting the harassment. They might give you fewer shifts or less attractive assignments. They might start saying you’re doing a bad job, even if you’re not.
- You might get edgy, nervous, or irritable at work, and that could hurt your reputation.
But here’s the main way your career can get hurt.
If the harassment goes on long enough, or is severe enough, your mental, emotional, and physical health can start to suffer in ways that hurt your ability to do your job.
That’s actually pretty common. Some people wake up one morning completely unable to go to work and are unable to work for weeks or months or even years. It creeps up on them. They think they’re coping fine, and then one day they realize they aren’t. You don’t want that to happen to you.
What happens if you quit your job
If you’re being harassed at work, quitting your job can be great for your career. We hate saying this because you shouldn’t have to quit—but it’s true.
Quitting gets you away from the harassment, and you avoid any damage to your reputation. Nobody trash-talks you, nobody judges you, nobody punishes you. You can get a good reference, and people will talk about you positively after you leave. That’s great for your career and it’s an excellent reason to quit.
But we need to warn you: When people quit their job to get away from harassment, it usually doesn’t go that well for them. It’s very common, in fact, for people to end up taking a new job that’s worse than their old one. People often spend a period of time unemployed, or underemployed. Some never get their career back on track.
It’s a big topic, so we wrote a whole article about it.
The research says that, when people get sexually harassed at work, their career is very likely to suffer. Lots of people end up with their careers permanently damaged.
We want to pause for a minute to acknowledge how unfair that is.
You were minding your own business, doing your job, and somebody decided to harass you. The idea that you should pay a price for that, that your career should end up getting hurt? That really sucks. It’s not fair and we’re sorry.
The good news is there are things you can do to protect yourself. Read our article How to protect your career.