“Reporting” means making an official report or complaint. If you want information about how to talk about harassment informally, see How can I talk with my employer to get them to stop the harassment? The information here is only about what happens if you make a formal report.
Most people don’t report workplace sexual harassment.
- They think what happened wasn’t serious enough.
- They don’t think anyone will do anything about it.
- They’re afraid their employer will punish them.
If you decide to report, there can be a big difference between what’s supposed to happen and what actually happens. We’re going to tell you about both.
What’s supposed to happen when people report sexual harassment
In most workplaces, reporting is supposed to trigger a series of steps.
Most employers are obligated—either by law or by internal policy—to launch an investigation. What’s supposed to happen is this:
- Your employer should appoint a person to investigate your complaint.
- That person should try to figure out whether you were sexually harassed.
- If the investigator determines you were sexually harassed, your employer should then take steps to make sure the harassment stops.
A good employer will talk with you to figure out what would make you feel safe at work, and will try to do what’s necessary so you do feel safe.
If the person who’s harassing you is your boss, your employer is still supposed to carry out an investigation. The person investigating the harassment is not supposed to be the person who is harassing you, or anyone who works for that person. That can be difficult in a small company, or if it’s the CEO who’s harassing you. But that’s how it’s supposed to work.
If your employer decides that, yes, you were sexually harassed, here are some examples of things they might do.
- Reprimand the harasser and tell them to stop harassing you.
- Suspend the harasser, with or without pay.
- Move the harasser to a different work location, change their shift, or move them to a different department, so they don’t work with you. (Or, in the case of a client or customer, assign a different person to work with the harasser, so you don’t have to.)
- Remind all employees about sexual harassment laws and policies.
- Develop new policies for reporting and stopping sexual harassment.
- Require the harasser, and sometimes also other people, to take sexual harassment training.
- Require managers to take training in how to prevent sexual harassment and stop it when it happens.
- Fire the harasser. (Or, in the case of a client or customer, refuse to provide services to them anymore.)
Your employer may not tell you about all the steps they take. If they punish the harasser, they may need to keep that confidential.
What actually happens when people report sexual harassment
It depends on the employer.
About half of employers carry out a proper investigation. Some are sympathetic but don’t do much. Some do nothing.
What’s worse, some employers punish people who report. That’s called a reprisal. It’s illegal for employers to punish a person for reporting sexual harassment, but it’s very common. About a third of the people who report sexual harassment say they ended up getting punished for it.
Here’s what the experts say about reporting.
A typical reporting procedure requires the victim to relive and recount (sometimes multiple times to multiple people) what may have been a humiliating, frightening, or traumatizing experience. It is not uncommon for victim identities to be divulged during investigations and for victims to lose all sense of agency or control over the situation.Lilia M. Cortina, professor of psychology, Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Michigan.
Maira A. Areguin, graduate student, Joint Program in Women’s and Gender Studies and Personality & Social Contexts, University of Michigan.
“Putting People Down and Pushing Them Out: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.”
Among people who file harassment complaints with the [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], at least one-third say that after complaining to the company they were demoted, moved to lousy jobs or shifts, fired, raped, or further harassed. Indeed, as several large-scale surveys show, people who file harassment complaints are much more likely to lose their jobs than those who experience similar levels of harassment and say nothing.Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology, Harvard University.
Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology, Tel Aviv University.
“Training Programs and Reporting Systems Won’t End Sexual Harassment. Promoting More Women Will.”
How to tell whether your employer will handle your report well
There’s no way to know for sure. But here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Is your workplace aggressive and competitive?
- Is leadership mostly male?
- Do some people at your work have a lot of power and others very little?
- Do people talk and joke about sex a lot?
- Do people openly make fun of other people?
- Are people openly racist or sexist?
- Have you ever seen anyone treated badly, and nobody stopped it?
- Is there anybody who everybody knows harasses people, but nobody has stopped them?
Those are all bad signs. If they describe your workplace, that would suggest your employer may not take sexual harassment very seriously.
Here are some more questions:
- Does your workplace seem like it cares about fairness?
- Does your boss seem to care about you as a person?
- Is there an HR department?
- Have you ever gotten sexual harassment training at work?
- Is there a sexual harassment policy that’s easily available to you?
- Is your workplace pretty balanced in terms of gender?
- Are there women, 2SLGBTQIA+ people, and racialized people in leadership positions?
- Would you be able to report to someone who is not a man?
- Do you know and trust the person you’d be reporting to?
- When people at your work behave badly, does anybody stop them?
- Does your workplace seem like it respects the people who work there?
- Does it seem like it cares about them as people?
If any of those describe your workplace, that’s good. It suggests your employer may take sexual harassment seriously, and may handle your report well.
Read how to report sexual harassment to your employer