Harassment, discrimination and other misconduct is a fact of life in the workplace. However, many of those who have been the target of it or even a witness to it, never report it to anyone. 

This may seem hard to understand. If someone is harming you or someone else on the job, of course, you would come forward to make it stop. However, the reality is the complete opposite of that. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that 90 percent of individuals who say they have experienced harassment never initiate formal action, such as reporting a complaint or filing a charge. In fact, reporting is the least common reaction to harassment. Instead, victims employ avoidance, denial or simply putting up with the misconduct, including sexual harassment and discrimination. 

The EEOC describes the extent of non-reporting as “striking.”

There are a host of reasons why reporting sexual harassment and other harmful workplace behavior is so difficult and each one of them plays a role in the chronic lack of underreporting in the workplace. 


Retaliation is not only real; it’s pervasive. One study found that fully three-quarters of workers suffered some form of retaliation after speaking out about their mistreatment.

Retaliation comes in many forms. The National Business Ethics Survey of Fortune 500 companies found that the most common type of retaliation was getting the cold shoulder—with 66 percent reporting that type of treatment from co-workers. (This may not seem like a big deal until you’ve been subjected to it.) Getting excluded from decision-making was also high up on the list, with 61 percent reporting this type of retaliation, followed by denials of promotions or raises (51%), almost losing a job (46%), getting verbally abused by a superior (40%), hours or pay cut (40%), relocation (38%), demotion (37%), verbal abuse by other employees (36%), online harassment (31%) and physical harm to person or property (29%). 

Retaliation is so “alarming” according to the National Business Ethics Survey, because it “discourages future reporting of observed misconduct, enabling problems to persist.” 

This fear of backlash has led to the development of anonymous reporting systems such as employee hotlines to encourage workers to come forward without fear of retribution. 

Confusion Over Definition

It is rarely black and white for many people whether they’ve been subjected to or witnessed “real” harassment. The #metoo movement has made it painfully clear how many people doubted themselves even though they knew something bad had happened to them and therefore never came forward. It is essential, therefore, that employers implement a holistic harassment prevention program, which includes online Anti-harassment training. Through explanation and re-enactments, high-quality training programs cut through the confusion to make it clear what types of behaviors constitute harassment, discrimination and other forms of workplace misconduct. 

Employer Inaction

Harassment reporting is often followed by an employer doing little or nothing about it. The EEOC states  that reporting is “often followed by organizational indifference or trivialization of the harassment complaint.” 

The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission writes that and employers’ responses are inconsistent and, in many cases, risk being ineffective. The Commission reports that of the cases where individuals surveyed did report an incident, employers took no action in about half of those cases. This data is corroborated in the sweeping National Business Ethics Survey of Fortune 500 companies. It also found a lack of faith the employer would take action as the top reason: sixty-one percent of employees who observed misconduct explained they did not report it because they “believed no corrective action would take place.”

The “Untouchable” Harasser

Employees subjected to harassment are especially wary of reporting the behavior when the harasser is in a position of high power and influence in the organization compared to the victims 

“Many individuals believed that senior colleagues, due to their position of influence within organisations, were not challenged by HR departments or other colleagues, with some describing these individuals as ‘untouchable,’” the Equality and Human Rights Commission writes. The Global Business Ethics Survey reports that discrimination in particular, 56 percent of employees indicated the misconduct was committed by those in leadership positions.  

The EEOC labels such individuals as “superstars” and describes them as the type who bring in lucrative clients or are partners in a firm or who are renowned in their field. Because of their stature, they see themselves as privileged, which may make them more prone to be harassers and for the company to look the other way and do nothing in terms of harassment prevention.

Lack of Appropriate Reporting Procedures

Some employees who are keen to report harassment fail to do so because they don’t know whom to contact or what the process is. In order to promote reporting in the process, the Equality and Human Rights Commission recommends “anonymous reporting tools” as well as “clear policies and processes communicated through induction and training.” The National Business Ethics Survey of Fortune 500 companies found that 15 percent of employees who observed misconduct did not report it because they did “not know whom to contact.”

Encouraging Employees to Report Misconduct 

A number of safeguards and systems need to be put in place to create a harassment-free environment by encouraging reporting. Written standards of what ethical workplace conduct back up by online anti-harassment training as well as a mechanism to not only seek advice and information but a way to anonymously report it. Lastly, companies must intervene and take action against those who violate workplace and standards, as well as to protect the employees who take huge personal and professional risks to come forward to report it.