In spite of the non-stop harassment allegations we see in the news, it turns out that a relatively small percentage of sexual harassment incidents are reported. The 2016 Report of the Co-Chairs of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace included this excerpt:
The least common response to harassment is to take some formal action – either to report the harassment internally or file a formal legal complaint. Roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.
Retaliation Is Likely the Biggest Barrier to Reporting
There are many reasons nearly 75% of harassment incidents go unreported. A big one might be fear of retaliation. The Select Task Force quoted a study that found 75% of people who did report harassment faced some form of retaliation. That’s a pretty shocking stat considering retaliation is also prohibited in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Clear Options Can Help
Another possibility is that people aren’t sure what action they should take to resolve the problem. There are a range of possibilities that might help. In this article I lay out four of them.
OPTION A: Talk to the Harasser
This might not always work and at times may feel too scary to even contemplate. Still it’s a reasonable option, especially when the person doing the harassment doesn’t understand the effect his/her behavior has on you.
Imagine a scenario in which a coworker is constantly complimenting you about your appearance. To you it feels like non-stop sexual come-ons, and you want it to stop.
While it’s possible the person offering the compliments is simply trying to be friendly, let’s suppose the person’s intentions are to win your romantic interests as you suspect. The problem is that the person mistakenly thinks you appreciate the behavior or worse, doesn’t care what you think.
You don’t appreciate the behavior and can clear that up through a conversation that goes like this:
Hey Bob, I notice you frequently make comments about my appearance, complimenting me on what I’m wearing or how I’ve styled my hair. This might be surprising to you, but I don’t feel comfortable receiving those comments. I want us to have a good working relationship, so I need you to stop complimenting my appearance.
Bob, may make some excuses or even argue with you that you are misreading him or being too sensitive. If he becomes defensive, you can hear him out and then state for a second time, in clear terms, that you want him to stop.
If Bob is a half-way decent human being, he’ll recognize his error. If his behavior was purposeful and he knew it was a problem, he’ll hear that he’s now been put on notice. He won’t like it. He may be embarrassed or angry. If he’s smart, he will change his ways.
Even if Bob doesn’t agree to change on the spot, you might want to give it some time and see what happens. With a little luck, the behavior won’t happen again. Mission accomplished!
OPTION B: Report the Problem Internally
If talking with Bob didn’t work or you didn’t feel comfortable having that conversation, you should report the problem to someone within your organization who has the authority to help.
This might be your supervisor or someone within Human Resources. If your supervisor is the problem, you might also consider your supervisor’s manager. For employees who belong to a union, the union may also provide an effective reporting channel.
Your company should have a defined reporting process which has been communicated to you. In the event your employer hasn’t done a great job of communicating that process, do a little research to find out what it is. Chances are it’s part of the company’s anti-harassment policy.
If searching it out seems like too much work, a quick email to HR with the following request ought to do the trick: If I’m experiencing workplace harassment what are my reporting options?
Once HR provides you with the information, you can decide what your best course of action might be. At this point, you haven’t made a complaint. You’ve only learned how to make one should you decide that’s what you want to do.
It’s hard to predict what else HR might do in response to your inquiry, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the HR person follows up to find out what’s going on. You’ll still be in control of what you choose to do next, although this provides a fine opportunity to share your story.
When you’ve learned what the formal internal process is for reporting harassing behavior, you should follow that process. It will also help for you to keep a written record of each step you made within the process.
OPTION C: File an External Complaint
What happens if sharing your concerns internally doesn’t solve the problem or worse yet, your employer retaliates against you for complaining? Then you may want to go outside the company for assistance.
The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) is charged with investigating violations of Title VII. Also, there are state agencies charged with doing the same. For example, in my home state of Minnesota, this responsibility falls to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
In both cases, there is a means to talk with someone to gather information before making a formal complaint. Once you understand how the process works, you can decide how you want to proceed.
One important note is that the government agencies have deadlines you need to meet, so if this looks like an option you want to take, make sure you act within the deadlines.
OPTION D: Use the Courts
If working through the EEOC or a state agency still doesn’t solve the problem to your satisfaction, you can seek relief through the legal system. The government agencies can help point you in the right direction should you choose this option.
Options A through C have plenty of potential for resolving the problem. When the system works, one of these options should be the end of the problem solving process. But if they don’t work, it’s good to know you still have one last option.
The Least Effective Options
Unfortunately, the more common strategies are typically the least effective in terms of actually solving the problem.
- Talking to friends and family. While it may be a relief to share your story and seek their support, they have no authority to take any action that can directly help you. In addition, they may not be aware of the options and could provide you with bad advice.
- Fighting fire with fire. This can lead to an escalation in harassing behavior. It also exposes you to the risk of being disciplined for your behavior.
- Hoping it will go away. The person who is targeting you may move on to someone else, but they might also continue to harass you. This is particularly likely if their behavior is habitual and they have no idea you see it as a problem. Ignoring the behavior doesn’t have a good track record of success.
Workplace Harassment Is a Problem
This problem needs to be addressed. Because harassment often occurs away from view of people who have the authority to take action, it won’t be solve until the people speak up and shine some light on the issue.
There are plenty of option to obtain assistance, but they’ll only be useful if you take advantage of them.