Resources, Guides, and Case Studies

What do I do if my employee refuses to report harassment?

Case Study
John mentions to his friend in HR that he thinks his teammate Mark is being bullied by the boss. The team leader often calls him stupid and useless in front of others and sometimes shouts at him. Others in the team don’t get the same treatment. He doesn’t know how Mark can take it all the time but has never spoken to him about it.

The HR officer calls Mark in for a meeting to find out what is happening and if he is OK. Mark is reluctant to speak about the verbal abuse. When asked point blank if he has been insulted and shouted at, he says yes… but adds “but I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.” He refuses to make a formal complaint.

“Reporting will just make it worse. Please drop this. I did not ask for help.”

What can HR do?

What are our options if the victim will not report?

First figure out why you want the victim to report:

  1. Because it offends my sense of justice to see a bully get away with this.
    This motive is NOT in the interest of the victim. Let it go! Feeling offended is your problem, not the victim’s.
  2. Because I’m concerned that the safety and mental well being of the victim is at risk.
    If the safety of any employee is at risk, then that should be grounds to investigate with or without the cooperation of the victim. It would be as if someone made an anonymous report and the accusation was egregious enough that it warranted looking into further. Safety always trumps an individual’s desire to not take action.
  3. Because I believe this behaviour may have a negative impact on the morale of other employees.
    You are describing a situation where the harasser is creating a “toxic workplace” that is stressing many people out. Someone does not need to be the target of harassment to be disturbed or stressed by what they witness. In the story above, John could be considered a victim of a toxic workplace because he is regularly witnessing behaviour that upsets him. There may be grounds to investigate whether there is a situation that is affecting the entire team.
  4. Because I believe this behaviour may have a negative impact on the firm’s reputation.
    If the firm’s reputation is at risk, this could be corroborated by witnesses to the harassment. The victim’s cooperation is not necessary because the reputation question is about the optics of the behaviour. Is the harasser engaging in behaviour that looks bad for the firm?
  5. Because I believe this behaviour may open the firm to liability.
    Under the law in most jurisdictions, employers need to ensure safe workplaces for their employees. Failure to provide a safe working environment could result in claims or lawsuits resulting in either financial or reputation cost. Like the situation of reputation risk, cooperation of the victim should not be necessary to take action to protect the firm.Likewise, there are certain crimes – like rape – that carry a duty to report under the law. If you are questioning whether you have knowledge of a crime that has a mandatory reporting requirement, consult a lawyer.

Why don’t people always report being harassed?

It’s simple. Fear of retaliation and negative consequences.

Retaliation is not always just retaliation by the accused – it can come from friends of the accused, anyone sympathetic to the accused, or anyone both inside and outside the organisation who consider the accuser as “a troublemaker.” Even if the victims’s claim is undoubted, some people may believe that they should have “not made a big deal” about the harassment. Fears that the victim may be prone to complaining may affect his/her future career prospects.

Approximately half of all discrimination and harassment complaints lead to some type of retaliation. And workers who complain about harassment are more likely to end up facing career challenges or experiencing worse mental and physical health compared to similar workers who were harassed, but did not complain about it.” – HBR

So is fear of negative consequences well founded? Absolutely.

Before asking an individual to trust the system, be sure the system is made trustworthy.

These question may help identify areas that need improvement:

  1. What protections do you have in place? What kind of systems do you have?
    How can my organisation ensure that the victim will suffer no adverse consequences from reporting? What measures do we have in place to protect that person’s safety, well being, and future career? Do you have detailed policies, procedures and training in place to ensure that victims are safe to come forward? (click for more info)
  2. What is your track record?
    Can you point to prior situations in your firm where reporting turned out well for the victim? What about where it didn’t? If there have ever been cases of victims, who made good faith reports having adverse outcomes, what has been done to ensure the system is safer in future?
  3. What is it about organisation’s culture that makes the harasser feel emboldened to behave like this in the first place?
    Quite often, the initial problem is cultural: ideas about power and status make some people feel that their abusive behaviour is acceptable or will not be challenged. Such endemic problems may require a larger campaign of training and buy-in from senior management to ensure zero-tolerance of harassment. 
Most organisations don’t handle harassment complaints well because they do not scrutinise their systems until there is a crisis. If you need help with policy & procedure review or training, feel free to contact us to explore how we may be able to help.

Bottom line is you want to make sure that if someone in your organisation makes a complaint of harassment in good faith, that they can feel confident it will improve their situation. Improvement can take many forms: ideally the harassment stops, and/or the victim is moved out of harm’s way. But sometimes improvement is as simple as having an outlet for support and coaching to deal with a stressful situation.

If there are no guarantees that their situation will improve, or if in fact the chances of the situation becoming even worse are high, then in no way should someone be coerced to report. Such urging may be experienced as another form of harassment. It can make the victim’s situation even more stressful. Let the victim choose how he or she would be comfortable proceeding.

The starting point is always to speak with the victim to understand their situation, their fears and what outcome they would like. Be honest about the benefits and risks of formal reporting procedures including what protections your organisation can provide.

And if those protections are insufficient, it may be time for a rehaul of the relevant policies and procedures as well as management training to ensure endorsement and buy-in for a safer workplace.