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Understanding why victims can be hesitant to report sexual harassment

Posted on April 20, 2017 | Firm News,Sexual Harassment

As much as we would like to believe that workplaces here in California and across the nation have become more enlightened and unwilling to tolerate sexual harassment in any form, this is far from the reality. Worse yet, studies show many victims of this demoralizing and illegal conduct choose not to report it.

Consider a meta-analysis undertaken by researchers with the University of British Columbia and the University of Michigan, which found that only 25-33 percent of people victimized by sexual harassment report it to a union representative or supervisor, and that the number of people who actually go on to file a formal complaint drops to a mere 2 to 13 percent.

Furthermore, this meta-analysis discovered that going forward, victims are most likely to avoid their harasser, dismiss the severity of the incident or simply ignore problematic behavior.

This naturally begs the question as to why people are so disinclined to take the necessary action, something that might otherwise seem so simple to outside observers.

There are essentially three primary reasons why victims are reluctant to come forward:

  • Fear of retaliation: Victims fear that reporting the conduct will result in some manner of professional retribution, including hostility from co-workers, poor performance reviews, poor references or industry blackballing to name only a few.
  • Misinformation: Many employees mistakenly believe that their experience doesn’t rise to the level of sexual harassment. Indeed, survey findings have consistently shown that the number of people reporting being victimized by sexual harassment rises when asked about certain behaviors.
  • Company culture: The employer might have created a culture in which people are either discouraged from reporting sexual harassment or their complaints go ignored.

As discouraging as all this is, experts indicate there are ways in which employers can not only combat sexual harassment, but also encourage employee reporting:

  • Train and designate dozens of employees to receive complaints, such that people have a better chance of finding a person to whom they feel more comfortable reporting sexual harassment
  • Ensure gender equality in management positions
  • Retain the services of an ombudsman
  • Institute proportional consequences, such that lesser offenses are handled via discussions
  • Change training so that employees are instructed on how to be civil and take action when faced with sexual harassment rather than on how not to act

Above all else, those who have been victimized by sexual harassment must understand that they have options for pursuing justice and making sure their voice is heard.