When you get sexually harassed at work, you have three basic options. You can:

  1. stay at work and try to cope, without reporting the harassment
  2. stay at work and formally report the harassment to someone in a position of authority
  3. quit your job

Each of those choices will affect you financially. 

In this article, we’ll go through them one by one.

What happens if you decide to stay at work and try to cope

We’ll start with the choice that’s the most common. Most people, at least at first, decide to stay at work and try to cope with the harassment.

From a purely financial perspective this is your best bet, because it means things stay pretty much the same money-wise.

You might find yourself needing to spend extra money to keep yourself safe. (Like, taking a taxi instead of the bus, or buying a safety app for your phone.) Or you might find yourself giving up some of your ability to earn money. (Like, to avoid the harasser, you might need to drop certain shifts or certain customers.)

But, in general, if you stay with your current job, things probably won’t change much from a financial perspective.

At least, not at first.

We need to warn you, though. Researchers say that if you get sexually harassed over a long period of time—whether it’s by one person or lots of different people—it will start to grind away at your mental health. And that can end up costing you money.

  • You might end up needing to take unpaid sick days or go on a stress leave. Maybe you end up spending lots of money on things to make yourself feel better. Maybe you end up needing to see a therapist, or pay for medication.
  • As the stress piles up, you might find yourself doing less well at your job, which can also cost you money. You might not get promoted, or get a raise. In a really bad scenario, you could get fired.
  • If the harassment goes on long enough, some people find themselves waking up one day just completely unable to go into work. They are so stressed and so burned out they are just done. They thought they were doing okay until one day they just…weren’t.

Staying at work and trying to cope can turn out okay. But you may be affected financially, and, if the harassment is bad enough, you could end up unable to work.

What happens if you decide to formally report the harassment

Reporting sexual harassment is risky.

If you have a good employer, they will handle your report fine, and you shouldn’t suffer any financial consequences.

But for most people, it’s not like that.

When people complain about being harassed, it’s common for their employer to end up punishing them for it, and that punishment is often financial. You get fewer shifts, fewer hours, fewer assignments. You get demoted, or denied a raise or promotion that you should have gotten. In a worst-case scenario, you get fired.

And it’s not just your employer who can cause you financial harm. Your co-workers and broader professional network can cost you money, too.

That’s because when people hear that someone has complained about being sexually harassed—whether that person is a co-worker, a professional acquaintance, or a boss at another company—it’s unfortunately common for them to decide the person who reported is a troublemaker and a drama queen.

That can cost you money because normally we rely on other people to help us make money. Other people tell us about opportunities, tell us how to get promoted or get a raise, and recommend us for jobs. If that stops happening, our finances are going to suffer.

So reporting harassment is financially risky. It might work out okay, but if people decide you’re a troublemaker, that might cost you money.

What happens if you decide to quit your job

Quitting your job might seem like the best financial decision you could make. You get to leave on your terms and your own timeline, which means there’s no gap in your pay. And you get away from the whole problem and all the risk it creates.

But most people who quit their job to get away from sexual harassment? They end up making less at their next job.

When women leave a job due to sexual harassment, research indicates that they often move to a job of lower quality or with lower pay. This impacts women’s short- and long-term economic security as they earn less and ultimately retire with less income.

Deborah J. Vagins and Mary Gatta, American Association of University Women
Limiting Our Livelihoods: The Cumulative Impact of Sexual Harassment on Women’s Careers.”

One study found that four out of five people who were sexually harassed had a different job two years later. The researchers interviewed those people, and here are some of the stories they found:

  • A flight attendant ended up taking a job at a hospital. Her pay dropped 50%.
  • A patient-care worker took a different job doing the same kind of work. Her pay dropped 9%.
  • A nurse took a different nursing job. Her pay dropped 40%.
  • An administrative assistant took a job at a call centre. Her pay dropped 52%.
  • An apprentice in the construction industry took a job as a bus driver. Her pay dropped 29%.
  • A shift leader at a fast-food restaurant took a job at a different fast-food restaurant. Her pay dropped 11%.

Those people weren’t just getting paid less; their new jobs were also financially worse in other ways. They were less likely to offer a pension. Benefits were worse. There was less vacation time.

Why do people end up in worse-paying jobs?

  • When a person has been harassed, it can be hard for them to explain why they left (or are leaving) their last job.
  • They might end up leaving without a good reference.
  • They might be seeking a job where they’re less likely to get harassed again, which might involve accepting lower-paid work.
  • They might not be at their best mentally or emotionally while they’re job hunting.

People are especially likely to take a big pay cut if they’re currently working in a majority-male environment, like mining and gas, construction, policing, the military, science, engineering, or technology.

Why? Because majority-male environments generally pay a lot more than industries that don’t have a lot of men. Researchers call this a “wage premium.”

When people leave a majority-male workplace due to harassment, they’ll often decide to seek out a workplace that doesn’t include a lot of men, so they can avoid being harassed again.

That’s how people can end up with a big pay cut. They are giving up the “wage premium” of a majority-male industry in exchange for lowering their risk of getting harassed.

Let’s recap.

  • If you stay at work and try to cope, your costs might be pretty small. But in a worst-case scenario, you could end up getting so stressed out that you’re unable to work at all.
  • If you formally report, your costs could be zero. But if you get tagged as a troublemaker, your career—and therefore also your finances—could really suffer.
  • If you quit your job, your costs could be zero. But it’s fairly likely your next job will pay less, and—especially if you currently work in a majority-male environment—maybe a lot less.

We looked for Canadian information on the lifetime costs of sexual harassment, but couldn’t find any. But we did find U.S. data.

A 2021 report from the U.S. Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the Time’s Up Foundation says that, for a low-paid service-sector worker who changes their job due to sexual harassment, the lifetime costs of being sexually harassed will be about $160,000. For an apprentice in a majority-male trade environment, the lifetime cost might be as high as $1.7 million.

That’s serious money. You shouldn’t have to lose it. It’s not fair.

But now that you know what sexual harassment can cost you, you can take steps to protect yourself.