Why Workplace Sexual Harassment Is Difficult to Report

About 5 million Americans suffer workplace sexual harassment annually. Yet, less than ten thousand file their case with state Fair Employment Practices Agencies or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Workplace sexual harassment makes national headlines as famous women come forward. Social media also helps raise awareness of toxic corporate cultures.

The Definition of Workplace Sexual Harassment

The EEOC defines workplace sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

The EEOC goes on to say, “Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”

In 2016, the EEOC study concluded 25% of women were victims of workplace sexual harassment. Even the EEOC considers this a conservative statistic as the study found 25 to 85% of women expressed incidents of sexual harassment at work. The EEOC estimates 75% of victims in these hostile work environments never report the situation.

How to Report Workplace Sexual Harassment

The first step to make a report is to clearly identify the harassing behaviors. After expressing concern directly to the perpetrator, notifying a manager or HR department is next.

Those who never face harassment often question why negative conduct goes unreported so frequently.

Who to Blame?

Generally, employees and managers lack knowledge, education and training in sexual harassment topics. In this current #MeToo culture, the prevailing stigma means no black and white answer exists. Lewd comments or suggestive jokes lack clear boundaries now. More aggressive conduct from the harasser still evokes confusion and shame from victims. The awareness that these behaviors constitute hostile work environments is relatively new. Identified as harassment now, not long ago the same actions looked normal.

Women regularly fear overreacting. They wonder how romantic intent and innuendo meld into harassment. Perhaps the perpetrator just lacks social graces, or the victim misinterprets cues. Ultimately, potentially jeopardizing their reputation takes significant thought.

Immediate Repercussions

When a sexual harassment claim proceeds, the expectation is the situation changes. Unfortunately, in 2016, TUC reported 80% of women who file a claim found their situation did not change as a result. In fact, 16% said talking to their supervisor made the situation worse.

Sometimes, a report of workplace sexual harassment ends a woman’s employment. Future advancements are off the table. While technically protected from immediate firing, the allegations give management a future reason for firing them. So, they remain silent, suffering short term, rather than facing longer term consequences.

The Role Trauma Plays

Shame, trauma and other emotional elements factor into why victims do not report their harassment. This type of harassing offense sometimes results in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. Negative psychological impacts of continued abuse prove extremely detrimental. The abuse cycle allows the abuser to get away with the behavior and supports the continuation with more victims.

Aggressive harasser behavior may force the victim into silence. Some victims live with so much trauma they cannot find their voice, or they repress the actions from their memories. Regardless, lasting trauma is a factor in why abuse goes unreported.

But Is This Workplace Sexual Harassment, or Am I Being Too Sensitive?

Women often despise the stereotype and must consider an array of difficult questions. Many try to convince themselves lewd jokes are not actually harassment. Others wonder if it was their fault or perhaps everyone gets comments like these. Maybe it only feels like a hostile work environment and they lack the sense of humor needed to get the joke. Ultimately, victims end up blaming themselves. The excuses range from clothing, to actions, or maybe it is just how other people are in that industry. If you believe to be in a situation where you might be the victim of office sexual harassment, it’s best to speak with a California employment lawyer to see if you might have a valid reason to take legal action.