When you’re being sexually harassed at work, there are a million things you could do. But they all boil down to one big decision.
You’re going to do one of these three things:
- stay at work without making a formal complaint
- formally report what’s happening to someone in a position of authority
- quit your job and get a new one
Before we dive into the pros and cons of each choice, we want to tell you something.
You should feel it’s safe to trust your instincts. You are probably going to make the right decision for you.
How do we know that?
We’ve surveyed hundreds of people who’ve been sexually harassed. We’ve talked with dozens more. We’ve read hundreds, maybe thousands, of people’s stories on social media and in books and articles and academic studies.
We’ve learned that people handle sexual harassment in all kinds of different ways. We’ve also learned that most people end up feeling good about what they decided to do.
People may have regrets. But they don’t often regret how they handled the harassment. What they tend to regret is the amount of time they had to spend researching and worrying and agonizing before they could make a decision.
Our goal with this article is to give you information so you can evaluate your options. We want to help you shortcut through the worrying and agonizing phase, so you can move forward more quickly and with confidence.
So here we go. Here are your options.
Option 1: Stay at work and try to cope
This is what most people do, at least in the beginning, at least for a while.
Some don’t tell anyone what’s happening, but quietly take steps to try to keep themselves safe. Some use a whisper network to warn other people. Some talk directly with the harasser to try to make them stop. Some complain informally to their boss. Some try to ignore the harassment and instead stay focused on their own career and their own goals.
Why try to stay at work and cope?
If the harassment is relatively mild and doesn’t repeat, this can be a really good strategy. You get to keep your job, and nothing really changes for you work-wise.
Why not do it?
There’s always a risk the harassment will escalate and you could end up seriously hurt.
Even if that doesn’t happen, if the harassment is severe or lasts a long time, it can really hurt you. And we need to warn you: The damage isn’t always obvious at the time.
Harassment—especially when it’s severe or goes on for a really long time—can cause you all kinds of problems. It can make you enjoy your job less. It can distract you from your work in ways that make you less good at your job. It can make you anxious. It can lead you to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. You can end up feeling betrayed, suspicious, and cynical about people. And if your job requires you to fake being okay with the harassment (like, if you need to laugh along with people’s “jokes,” or put up with slurs, or being touched, or repeatedly propositioned, or asked invasive questions)—well, that can really wear you down.
It’s also not fair. You deserve a job that’s free of harassment. You shouldn’t have to just suck it up and try to cope with it by yourself.
Staying at work is what people do if the harassment seems too mild to bother quitting or reporting, or if the job is just short term and they’re leaving soon anyway.
People also do it if they feel like they have no choice. If they don’t believe reporting will do any good, and they don’t want to find another job, or can’t—well, in those circumstances people will often try to stay and make their current job work.
For some people this works out fine.
But it’s risky. Some people do this, and then realize years or even decades later that the cumulative effects of the harassment were actually really grinding away at their mental health and their happiness—much more so than they realized at the time. Many do eventually choose to quit or report, and some wish they had done it sooner.
Option 2: Report the harassment
We’re using the word “report” here to mean making a formal complaint. Workplace sexual harassment is illegal, and so if you complain about it to a person in a position of authority, they are supposed to make it stop.
Depending on your situation, there are lots of different ways to make a complaint. You can go to the police. You can make a formal report to your employer. You can complain to your union. You can complain to a human rights body. You can take your employer to court. You can go public.
In theory, this is the most obvious thing to do. You should be able to report the harassment, and then somebody should step in and make it stop.
Why not report?
Because often it just doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to, and in fact it can actually create new, worse problems for you.
If you have a good employer, reporting can work out fine. You tell someone, they make the harassment stop, and that’s the end of it.
But that’s not what usually happens.
Often, what actually happens is that you make the report and end up getting labelled as a troublemaker or a problem because of it. People at your workplace react as though the real problem isn’t the harassment, but you, the person reporting it. (Yeah, we know. This sucks.) You end up getting punished. Your employer starts treating you badly, or fires you.
Some people, if they aren’t satisfied with how their employer handled their report, will carry it further—for example, by filing a complaint with a human rights body, or by taking their employer to court. These are expensive, slow processes, and researchers say they can be really hard on your mental health.
Two kinds of people. People who believe their employer will handle the report well. And people who believe the harassment is so serious that they must report it, even though they don’t think it will get handled well.
That’s not very many people.
Researchers have conducted hundreds of studies and surveys in Canada and other countries, going back to the 1970s, and they’ve all found the same thing: Most workplace sexual harassment is never formally reported. That’s always been true, and it’s still true today, even in the post-#MeToo era.
The people who report tend to be older. Even though harassment is most common in your twenties and early thirties, U.S. data finds that the average age of a person who reports is 47. Some researchers think that’s because older people are more likely to know how to report, or to be in a position where they think they can report and not get punished for it. Others think it’s because older people are just more fed up and angry, because they’ve been experiencing harassment for such a long time.
Researchers say that people who report harassment—and especially those who do it publicly—tend to do it for moral reasons. They’re furious. They don’t necessarily think reporting will do any good. They just feel like morally they have no choice.
Option 3: Quit your job
Lots of people end up quitting their job to get away from harassment. One study found that, two years after being harassed, four out of five people were working somewhere else.
Some people actually quit their entire industry. If you work in a harassment-heavy industry —like hospitality, or a majority-male environment like policing, construction, or software development—well, you might want to just get out of it. You might feel like you’d be better off in an industry where you don’t have to deal with being harassed all the time.
Why quit your job?
Because it works. Quitting your job is the fastest and most effective way to end the harassment. It gets you away from the harasser, and away from an unhealthy work environment. You may end up in a new job—or even a whole new career—where you don’t get harassed any more.
Why not quit your job?
Because you shouldn’t have to. You should be able to pick your work based on other reasons, like what jobs are available, what you’re good at, and what you enjoy doing. You shouldn’t have to pick your job based on how likely you are to be harassed while doing it.
Another bad thing about quitting: It can be surprisingly bad for you financially. The study that said it was common for people to have a new job after being harassed? It found that, in their new jobs, all those people were making less money.
Who quits their job?
People who aren’t very attached to their current job and can easily get another one. People who’ve been harassed for a long time, or are experiencing really severe harassment, and can’t find a way to make it stop. People who don’t want to report what’s happening, because they don’t trust their employer to handle it well.
So that’s it. Those are your options.
We want to say again: We believe you are going to handle this fine. You know yourself and your situation. You can trust yourself to handle this in the way that’s best for you.
We want to say one more thing: Sometimes when we talked with people, they told us they felt guilty about how they handled being harassed. They felt like they had made the right choice for them, but they felt bad that they didn’t do something that was “brave” or that would help other people. Some people said they felt pressure to “stand up for themselves” and “fight back,” and they felt bad they didn’t do that.
If you’re feeling that way, we urge you, please, to let it go.
All the choices are brave. Every decision is honourable.
If you need the permission of strangers on the internet telling you it’s okay to do what’s right for you, we are here to enthusiastically give you that permission.
We urge you to centre your own needs and interests and hopes and dreams and goals.
We urge you to make the decision that’s best for you.
- How to stay safe at work
- How can I talk with my employer to get them to stop the harassment?
- How can I talk with the harasser to get them to stop
- The grievance process and how your union should help you with it
- How to decide whether to quit your job—and how to make that work
- How to decide whether to change your career to get away from harassment—and how to make that work
- How to decide whether to take legal action (and what to expect if you do)
- How to decide whether to go to the police
- How to decide whether to go public, and how to protect yourself if you do
- How to decide to file a human rights complaint
- How sexual harassment can affect your mental health