Why Women Are Reluctant to Report Workplace Harassment to HR

Why Women Are Reluctant to Report Workplace Harassment to HR

Podcast 19: Typical Workplace Bullying Scenario (July 2019).


If we've learned anything in the past few months, it's that sexual harassment in the workplace is rampant — and, that the current system to hold the accused responsible is badly broken.

In most large companies, that system is the human resources department. A recent article in the New York Times examines why the HR model so consistently fails women.

The conundrum present in every HR department is obvious: those responsible for fielding complaints also work for the very company against which a woman may be issuing a grievance.

Who is HR really accountable to? The complainant or the company's executives? This troubling double role means the apparent confidentiality that is a tenet of HR often simply does not exist.

What does this mean in practice? Women describe a range of negative consequences of reporting, from general indifference to getting fired.

One of the most devastating consequences is silence. The Times pointed to a study that found of all the options available to those facing harassment in the workplace, taking formal action was the least likely option to be pursued.

In some companies, HR may actually work against accusers to protect serial harassers who are also high performers.

An article in Business Insider points to the case of Susan J. Fowler, the former Uber employee who, in a now high-profile blog post, described just such a system:

"When I reported the [sexual harassment], I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man's first offense, and that they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he "was a high performer" (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn't feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part."

Fowler later spoke with other female employees and discovered it was far from the man's first offense. She continued to complain about sexist behavior and harassment and says HR eventually decided that she was the problem, and not her alleged harasser.

Of course, not every HR department is terrible. But even when staff genuinely want to help, they are often forced by protocol to carefully avoid saying anything that could be construed as an admission of wrongdoing on the part of the accused.

Women have been complaining about the lack of a viable way to hold harassers in the workplace accountable since forever. The avalanche of allegations now coming to light means those in power are finally acknowledging the current model does not make women feel safe. It also means people are talking about solutions, and that's the first step towards dismantling a broken system.

Would you feel comfortable reporting harassment to your workplace's HR department? Tell us @feminineclub.