Why Don’t People Report Sexual Harassment?

Excerpt from “Retaliation at the Highest Level: Why CEOs, Boards of Directors Need to Change the Culture” by Judy Foley.

Harassment in the workplace is often unreported due to financial or social concerns. Harassed employees: 

  • Fear their claim will not be believed or taken seriously. 
  • Worry about losing their job and the economic impact it can have on their family or those who rely on them. 
  • Worry about social and professional retaliation and the percep­tion of others that can result in being ostracized and tagged as a troublemaker.
  • Harbor doubts about the confidentiality of internal grievances, and whether concerns voiced would be considered confidential and not later leaked or released. 
  • Are concerned that consequences of an investigation will be unsatisfactory to the employee, further discouraging reporting. 
  • Are uncertain of the sincerity of the company and whose best interest it will represent and support. 
  • Worry the organization will blacklist them.

Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that victims of harass­ment, rarely report the situation. Per EEOC statistics, approximately 6 percent to 13 percent who experience harassment file a formal complaint. That means, on average, anywhere from 87 percent to 94 percent of individuals impacted by sexual harassment did not file a formal complaint. 

What Is The Impact on Your Company? 

Beyond the emotional impact inflicted upon employees attempting to work in a problematic environment, if your company becomes party to a lawsuit involving any type of workplace harassment, your costs could be enormous for litigation and liability. Litigation and the potential for a settlement against a firm can have an impact in many areas. Employees begin to question the ethics and integrity of the organization they are a part of, and external perceptions of actions taken also can create undue pressure on an organization. Stock price impacts, overall reputation of the firm, and customers separating to avoid guilt by association are all lasting results of a pubic settlement against a firm that doesn’t maintain a fiduciary position in support of their employees. 

Historically, some companies have believed that confidential­ity agreements, non-disparagement clauses in settlements, and now forced arbitration agreements may save them from the actions of their employees and allow them to sweep sexual harassment under the rug without public dissemination. However, while these agree­ments have helped to protect a company’s reputation and settle claims without going to trial, the environment is changing, with transparency becoming the norm and the requirements of those with responsibility to manage and oversee corporate governance being held accountable for the culture and environment they over­see. The days of hiding behind agreements to avoid public oversight continue to decline as both employees and investors look for clarity and purpose in what they do or where they invest (Walters, Joanna, “#MeToo a revolution that can’t be stopped, says Time’s Up co-founder,” The Guardian. Retrieved 2018-10-21.)

What Is the Impact Of Harassment on Your Employees? 

The ultimate impact of harassment for employees in an organi­zation that perpetuates this environment is personal discomfort, plus reduced morale and productivity within the organization. In addition: 

  • Organizations with the reputation of allowing sexual harass­ment to exist may have difficulty hiring new employees, incur high turnover rates, and establish a reputation that precedes them in what has become a competitive marketplace where potential employees have a great say in where and who they work for. 
  • It is imperative that a company take the necessary steps to pre­vent sexual harassment from occurring in the workplace and create that safe haven for all employees. 
  • Policies and employee training are critical needs, but enforce­ment is the ultimate bellwether when issues occur. 
  • When harassment happens, it is up to the organization to respond courageously instead of scapegoating, wrongfully plac­ing blame, or taking steps to wither and cover up the incident or retaliate against the victim. 
  • Companies need to respond properly as they risk watching years of good work impacted based on one employee’s bad actions. 

Company Culture Is Critical 

Does your company culture—from the CEO and Board of Directors—eliminate harassment or support it in their underlying culture? Over and over again, workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish or be vanquished. Critical to the culture of the organization is leadership, accountability, and following through on company values. 

  1.  Does the company’s Board of Directors and CEO to have a commitment to a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace where harassment is not accepted nor tolerated? 
  2.  Do all levels of management have systems in place that hold all employees accountable to the expectation that harassment in the work place is unacceptable? 
  1.  Does your organization have a commitment to place a premium on diversity and inclusion strategy? This is key to a harassment free workplace. 
  1. employees regardless of their race, religion, national origin, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), age, disability, or genetic information cannot be harassed. 

You will not find out until you are attempting to address a con­cern, what your company’s actions will be and whether they will be in line with their written values. The company will say harassment is not acceptable, yet when you need to address harassment, you will under­stand whether leadership, Human Resources, and employment lawyers will follow through on an investigation to understand the facts, be objective, and determine a resolution that is appropriate. Retaliation is never acceptable by a company or representatives from a company. 

The best way for companies to protect themselves and their workers is by changing the culture. Companies need to be proactive and intentional in creating the culture that treats employees with respect and dignity. Harassment must be forbidden and resolution must come from the top of the organization. 

Establish an Anti-Harassment Policy 

When establishing an Anti-Harassment Policy, consider resources from the EEOC. Checklists from the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace and Society for Human Resource Management provide guidance on creating policies and procedures. Additionally, review your state laws as specific requirements for these policies may be defined. A comprehensive program is essential for ensuring due diligence as an employer and addressing the employee’s safety and well-being. It is the basis for employee communication and training, and should include your protocol for managing incidents reported. Management at all levels needs to enforce the policies and ensure there is compliance and the plan is applied con­sistently. The EEOC has identified risk factors in harassment so your company can be proactive and consider these when designing or updating policies. 


It’s important to get your workforce engaged in the process of learn­ing and understanding harassment issues. Employees need to know it’s more than just being sensitive to the issues: It’s about adhering to ethical standards, treating people with respect, and upholding the standards of your organization. Periodic training on harassment may be required for employers in some jurisdictions, but whether required or not, training and retraining helps rein­force your commitment to your employees’ safety and well-being. Continuing education that’s delivered over time and on an ongoing and recurring basis should include explaining responsibilities and expectations of all employees, training on situational awareness case studies to highlight both positive and negative behaviors, and creat­ing an understanding of the different types of harassment.

Excerpt from “​​​​​​​Retaliation at the Highest Level: Why CEOs, Boards of Directors Need to Change the Culture” by Judy Foley. For more information, visit http://thecultureoftrust.com

Judy Foley is CEO and founder of Navigate Transformation, a company focused on accelerating growth and achieving competitive advantage through transformational change in supply chain and operations. Foley’s track record of creating competitive advantages and bottom-line impact for industry-leading enterprises included roles at Motorola, Allstate, CNA, and PRGX/Kraft Foods, and mid-market companies including private equity and family owned businesses. Noteworthy throughout her career has been establishing cost savings, cash flow improvements, process reengineering, and defining critical key performance indicators (KPIs). Her industry sector credentials include manufacturing, telecommunications/technology, insurance/financial, consumer products (CPG), automotive, health care, chemical, nonprofit, and consulting. Her credentials include hands-on operational experience working with boards of directors. Foley is an author, speaker, executive/holistic coach, and founder of The Culture of Trust, a company focused on culture, leadership, and strategy with expertise in coaching, consulting, and training leaders on organizational transformational strategies, process improvement, and best practices. She is author of the book “​​​​​​​Retaliation at the Highest Level: Why CEOs, Boards of Directors Need to Change the Culture.” She is also a contributing author of “Total Woman.” She is certified in Women’s Issues, Diversity and Inclusion through the Professional Women’s Network, expertise in sexual harassment training, coaching and consulting, and is a member of the PWN International Speakers Bureau. Active in the community, she serves on a number of boards and committees, including LaunchX at Northwestern University, a program that taps into the potential of ambitious high school students, supporting them through the process of launching startups.