Why don’t people report harassment?

Large, national survey looks to provide answers that employers should be looking for

Why don’t people report harassment?

It’s an important question: Have you been a victim of sexual violence or harassment at work?

And researchers are looking for answers, in a major cross-Canada survey run by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) in partnership with the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children (CREVAWC) at Western University and a researcher at the University of Toronto.

The survey is funded by the government of Canada’s Workplace Harassment and Violence Prevention Fund.

“The issue of violence and harassment at work has taken on new urgency during COVID-19,” says Hassan Yussuff, president of the CLC. “Workers facing violence and harassment at work may be feeling more isolated and more fearful of repercussions for speaking out, given the state of the job market. The rise in the numbers of people working from home also means that violence is inescapable for those living with their abusers.”

More importantly, the researchers also want to delve into why employees choose to report or not report harassment.

“The MeToo movement is telling us a lot about how frequent and how damaging workplace sexual harassment is. Now we need to know why it has continued unabated for so long,” says Barb MacQuarrie, community director at CREVAWC.

“Why don’t those who experience it report? What happens after they do report? This survey will give us the data we need to have serious conversations with policy makers, both governmental and at the workplace level about what we need to do next.” 

Like many misdeeds in the workplace, harassment often is able to continue in a workplace because people are reluctant to act.

Seventy-two per cent of workers who experienced sexual harassment said they did not report it, according to a 2018 CareerBuilder survey.

The top reason? People don’t want to be seen as a troublemakers. 

Another 2020 U.S. study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that while a majority of people say they would report sexual harassment if they witnessed it, only a minority of them actually did.

And personal values make a difference: People who value loyalty are less inclined to oppose sexual harassment, while those who value fairness are more inclined to oppose the bad behaviour, finds “Good intentions aren’t good enough: Moral courage in opposing sexual harassment.”

The more we can know about why people don’t report, the better we can react and take action. Employers and HR should be looking for these kinds of insights if they’re serious about tackling harassment in the workplace – and seeing the associated benefits of a healthier, more productive workforce.

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