I was a bit clueless and naive in my 20s, but it took me longer than it should have to realize I was being harassed. It took even longer for me to confront the harasser and tell him to stop the first time. The second time came a bit faster and he did stop after that. Talking to him was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do up to that point in my life. Not just because I was a millennial who wanted to avoid face-to-face confrontation at almost any cost, but this harasser made me feel unsafe.
Looking back now with my years of experience and through the lens of the #MeToo movement, I wonder why it took me so long to do absolutely anything about the harassment.
There are a lot of articles out there about why people may not report harassment at work. There are a lot of disturbing statistics on how many people choose to not report sexual harassment in the workplace. The EEOC estimates that 75% of sexual harassment incidents are never reported. That doesn’t even include other forms of harassment that aren’t sexual like bullying or racial discrimination.
“An estismated 75% of sexual harassment incidents are never reported.”
Some articles are from a woman’s point of view, describing the difficulty that arises once a woman reports harassment. Among those difficulties are now suddenly becoming a “victim” at work; the time and energy it takes to deal with reporting it and the ensuing investigation; they don’t want to be blamed; and many other reasons that make reporting difficult. Other articles focus on the lack of trust that can develop at a workplace with victims of harassment seeing an HR department as there to protect management and not fight for employees. And still even more talk about how it can be difficult for victims in the workplace to know where to go and when to report harassment.
Psychology Today describes how a lack of information – among many other reasons – can keep a woman from speaking up, “many women, even highly educated ones, are uneducated about exactly what constitutes sexual harassment, don’t recognize sexual harassment as a real threat, don’t understand how sexual harassment or assault affected them, nor do they understand the real world consequences of not reaching out for help or not reporting it.”
“Many women, even highly educated ones, are uneducated about exactly what constitutes sexual harassment, don’t recognize sexual harassment as a real threat, don’t understand how sexual harassment or assault affected them, nor do they understand the real world consequences of not reaching out for help or not reporting it.”
In my experience, it was a combination of a lot of the reasons above. I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who I could talk to and I didn’t want to forever label myself as a dramatic attention seeker. And, for several weeks, I didn’t realize how bad the behavior was. I doubted myself and rationalized that everyone was like this and that I was in the wrong for feeling uncomfortable by this behavior. In fact, the first time I told the harasser to stop I apologized to him (sorry is like a nervous tic for me), he didn’t recognize I was serious and it took a second more forceful conversation to end it.
My experience is obviously not unique. In fact, I spoke with several people and found several more on Twitter that had all experienced some form of harassment and chose not to report it.
One employee, Dave (all the names have been changed in this blog to protect privacy), was too embarrassed to report that he had been sexually harassed. During a break at work a new, young, female employee had touched him very inappropriately. It made Dave feel incredibly uncomfortable and he started to avoid the new recruit. This lead to Dave missing out on team building activities and even some crucial meetings with his team. With his discomfort unabated, Dave even considered moving to a new department. He never considered reporting it or talking to the harasser. He didn’t want to come off as a creep (who would believe that he, an older man, hadn’t initiated something?) and was embarrassed by what had happened. Fortunately for Dave, the new recruit left and he was able to stay with his team.
Stacy tells the story about how she kept her hair short working in a male dominated field. She would get mistaken as a man, which was uncomfortable for her, but was far better than the harassment she’d have to endure from customers. Initially Stacy reported the harassment, but after her managers told her to stop being a drama queen, she stopped reporting incidents.
Finally, Cassandra never reported being harassed at work because she didn’t realize what had happened to her was harassment until years later when she began reading about the #MeToo movement and other people’s reports of harassment. Cassandra read stories that were so similar to her own and she realized she had never been fully educated on what sexual harassment at work was and how her situation could have been prevented.
These are just a few stories that highlight reasons why some people may not come forward at their companies to report harassment. There are hundreds more out there and most of them will not get reported. But employers can work to change that. They can change the culture at their companies and foster a safe workplace where victims won’t feel afraid to speak up and all employees can be educated on what harassment is and what is not appropriate for the workplace.