Why Wouldn’t a Victim of Sexual Harassment Take Her Complaint to HR?

The #MeToo movement has opened up another door for the voices of those who have been victims of sexual harassment, assault, or sexual violence of any kind. Much of this abuse has been happening in the workplace. In the wake of #MeToo, those employees who still may not feel safe or empowered to bring their complaints of sexual harassment to their HR department, or any other prescribed method for reporting, may now feel safe and empowered to post about it on social media.

In order for employers and HR professionals to know what’s going on and ultimately improve the workplace, they need to encourage victims of harassment to report to them.

Why wouldn’t a victim report to his or her employer?

1. They are worried their complaint won’t be taken seriously.

For years, women have been told they’re being too sensitive; they misunderstood the situation; or worst, they’re told they are flat-out lying.

2. They worry they will be retaliated against in some way.

According to a 2003 EEOC study, 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some sort of retaliation.

3. They know what the consequences will be.

This concern cuts both ways. They may feel that the punishment will just be a slap on the wrist and isn’t even worth reporting. On the other hand, they might recognize the offense as minor and want the offender to be disciplined, but don’t want him to lose his job.

In order to reduce incidents of sexual harassment, and in order to encourage victims to report any incidents, the corporate culture needs to change (Related: Good Practices for a Sexual Harassment Policy and Handling Complaints). Changing a corporate culture is no small task, but here are some tips to get it moving in the right direction:

1. The culture change and support has to be top-down; there has to be buy-in from leadership.

This could mean that the company’s president or CEO should be present at sexual harassment training and explain how it is a priority at the company.

2. Leadership has to make it clear that prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace is not only for the benefit or protection of the women in the workplace, but for the good of everyone.

If someone is harassing, making a sexist joke, the answer is not “hey there, we’re in mixed company.” Nor is it “Hey that’s offensive to Jane.” Good, top-down leadership means “that is offensive to me. We will talk about it privately, but I want to make it clear to everyone here that sexist comments will not be tolerated.”

3. There have to be multiple safe outlets for filing complaints.

The best route for someone who has experienced sexual harassment may not be filing a complaint with an HR manager; they might feel more comfortable with someone else. Start to think more creatively about who can take on complaints and train more people in how to deal with a complaint. They don’t all have to know how to run an investigation; they just have to identify the harassment and direct the complaint to the proper channel in the company.

4. Tap into any women-based groups at the company.

Many professional services firms have initiatives created to support their female employees. If your company already has a women’s initiative, that’s great; encourage them to have a conversation about harassment. Consider training the chair as an alternative outlet for complaints at your company. If your company does not already have a group like this, support any suggestions or opportunity for such an initiative to start and grow.

Again, changing the corporate culture is not easy. But, there are steps that employers can take that will lead them in the right direction.