How to Respond to Workplace Harassment: Understanding your Options

How to Respond to Workplace Harassment: Understanding your Options

There are several options for how to respond to harassment. None of them are perfect or easy — so you’ll need to explore your options and select the ones that is right for you. Here are a list of pros and cons for the leading options we see people taking:

Options for how to respond Pros Cons
Report the incident to HR or your manager You delegate the situation to an authorized person in the company, like HR or management. The company follows their internal process to assess the situation and determine an appropriate outcome. HR is designed to protect the company, which, at times, may not serve your individual best interests. If they run an investigation, HR may not be able to keep an investigation entirely confidential. Further, witnesses brought into the investigation may not feel comfortable disclosing full details and “evidence” of the situation may not exist. The person who did this to you may try to discredit your character to create confusion and build a defense. See our employee’s guide to workplace investigations and aftermath.
Report the incident to federal, state, or city agencies You delegate the situation to an authorized legal professional. This option ensures the situation is assessed against law and not just company policy. The standards for how they define harassment are high. They are looking for a hostile work environment or quid pro quo harassment. In most US states, you can nonconsensually kiss your employees on the mouth and it doesn’t qualify as “harassment” because it doesn’t meet the standard of “severe and pervasive” harassment. This is changing, but slowly. Similar to reporting the incident to HR or your manager, they will likely run an investigation, which could become public in your office and they will be looking for “evidence” which may not exist. The person who did this to you often builds a case as they are a “good person” and you are a troublemaker. See our employee’s guide to workplace investigations and aftermath. Contact the EEOC to report your harassment to the federal government, and state agencies to report it locally.
Quit your job You immediately exit the caustic environment – and prioritize your safety and healing. You shouldn’t have to be the one that has to change — they should have to change. People also report having a hard time getting motivated to find a new job when they have been bullied, discriminated against, or harassed because their self confidence is diminished. Others report taking a less desirable job “just to get out of there.” The person who did this to you is unscathed and keeps repeating the behavior.
Try and pretend it’s not happening, put your head down, and focus on your job You don’t have to deal with it directly. Slowly it starts to chip away at you. Having to be in the same place, with the same people who hurt you — or who saw you getting hurt and didn’t intervene — becomes too much. You may start to shut out other people which has measurable effects on your creativity, morale, and productivity. You start to feel alone, depressed, diminished, and eventually — you quit, or even worse, are fired. The person who did this to you is unscathed and keeps repeating the behavior.
Have a conversation with the person who disrespected, harassed, or discriminated against you You get to maintain control over the process. You name what they did, how it made you feel, what you want to change, and you decide when the conversation (or conversations are over). You force the individual who harmed you to see you in your full humanity. It’s often uncomfortable, anxiety-producing, and, albeit infrequent, there may be physical safety risks. Bring a support person and trust your instincts: if you don’t feel safe — don’t do it. See our guide for how to talk to the person who disrespected you at work.

We encourage you to thoroughly evaluate the potential impact to each option as it applies to your situation.  We understand this is not easy. And, selecting the option is not as challenging as implementation. With over 15 years of experience, we have learned the aftermath of harassment in the workplace can be worse than the initial incident itself, especially in entry-level or low-wage jobs.

To talk with someone about your options, we’ve partnered with Empower Work. They offer free, confidential support for workplace issues from trained peer counselors.  To access them: Text HOLLA to 510-674-1414.

To learn more, read our guide to understand how harassment in the workplace is defined in the US or take a look at this resource by Safety Talk Ideas on the different types of harassment. 

Here are some of our other resources:

What other options have you tried? How did it go? Let us know by emailing [email protected]

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