Why employees say workplace sexual harassment goes unreported

  • Just over half of workers who have experienced sexual harassment say they confronted the perpetrator, a recent survey found.
  • The top reason for remaining silent is the fear of being labeled a troublemaker.
  • If an employer does nothing about the reported event, workers can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
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Despite the #MeToo movement shining light on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace — and taking down a number of high-profile alleged perpetrators in the process — it appears many victims remain silent.

Of the 12 percent of workers who say they've experienced sexual harassment on the job, 72 percent have not reported it, according to a new survey from CareerBuilder. More than half (54 percent) did not confront the perpetrator.

"There's a stigma of shame, denial and fear of consequences that surrounds these victims, making it often difficult for them to come forward," said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder.

CareerBuilder polled 809 full-time, private-sector workers across a variety of industries and company sizes. The survey was conducted Nov. 28 through Dec. 20, in the midst of the #MeToo movement that has emboldened many victims to come forward publicly.

Reasons victims cited for remaining silent included: Fear of being labeled a troublemaker (40 percent), it's their word against the other person (22 percent) and fear of losing their job (18 percent).

But of those workers who did report the incident, three-quarters say the issue was resolved.

"Unfortunately, history has shown that there were reasons to be concerned," Haefner said. "But we have seen a shift over the last few months ... Anyone who feels harassed should come forward."

Workers who experience sexual harassment should be able to feel comfortable going to their companies to resolve the situation.

"Companies need to do a better job making sure all employees understand that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in the workplace and reports will be taken seriously," she said.

Who has felt sexually harassed in the workplace

18-34 17 percent
35-44 11 percent
45-54 10 percent
55 and older 9 percent
Source: CareerBuilder

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, you should start by telling the person who is doing the harassment to stop — if you feel comfortable doing so. If you don't feel comfortable doing so, or if the behavior continues despite your efforts, there are some key steps to take.

Here's what you need to know.

The law

According to the EEOC, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you have the legal right to be protected from discrimination in the workplace if your company has 15 or more employees. State laws or employer policies might also offer additional protections.

Workplace policies

Check to see if your company has an anti-harassment policy. It may be on the employer's web site or in their employee handbook, or you can get it from human resources.

If there is a policy in place, follow the steps outlined, which should include options for reporting the incident and filing a complaint.

While the specifics of company policies will differ, federal guidelines say the employer should promptly conduct an impartial investigation, along with ensuring that the harassment stops in the meantime.

If the investigation determines harassment did occur, EEOC guidelines say disciplinary measures should be proportional to the seriousness of the offense.

Document the harassment

Be sure to document the incident in detail, Haefner said.

"Make sure you list all the names of people who may have witnessed the incident," Haefner said.

Then, she said, provide your report to a supervisor or manager, or to your human resources department.

If your company has no procedure in place for filing a sexual-harassment complaint, you should go to your immediate supervisor. And if that person is the perpetrator?

"Make your complaint to your supervisor's immediate supervisor," Haefner said.

If you don't feel comfortable doing that, consider talking to another manager or supervisor. You should explain what has happened and ask for that person's help in putting a stop to the behavior.

Other options

You have the option of filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC within either 180 or 300 days of the incident, depending on where you work. (Federal employees and job applicants have a different process and time limits).

While you do not need a lawyer to file a complaint with the federal agency, some victims turn to an employment attorney for help with turning to the EEOC.

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