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How to Report Workplace Harassment

Jan 3, 2024
HR Acuity
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What is workplace harassment? 

Workplace harassment is the unwelcome or offensive conduct directed towards an individual or a group based on protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion or disability. When this harassment creates a hostile work environment, it is deemed unlawful and can lead to serious consequences for both individuals and organizations. 

How do you know if unwanted behavior has risen to the point of workplace harassment? For a workplace to be considered hostile (and thus unlawful), the behavior needs to be disruptive, ongoing and known to the employer – but not adequately addressed. 

Workplace harassment can take many forms, ranging from the subtle to overt and obvious. Examples of workplace harassment might include offensive jokes, slurs, physical or verbal intimidation or the displaying of inappropriate images. It is crucial for organizations to actively address and prevent all forms of harassment to ensure a safe and inclusive workplace for all employees. 

Learn more by downloading insights from HR Acuity’s Workplace Harassment and Employee Misconduct Study

How to report workplace harassment  

If you think you’ve experienced workplace harassment, following these steps for reporting workplace harassment can help you navigate the situation. If you’re an ER/HR professional, consider outlining these steps for your employees so they’re prepared should the situation arise. 

Step 1: Try to resolve the issue 

If you experience workplace harassment, consider addressing the matter directly with the person involved – but only if you feel safe doing so. Sometimes, individuals may not be aware that their behavior is offensive, and a candid conversation may help resolve the issue. If direct communication is not possible or proves ineffective, proceed to the next step.  

Step 2: Compile evidence 

Whether you’re an ER/HR professional or the victim of harassment – documentation is key to making a case. Record instances of harassment and be as detailed as possible. Record dates, times, locations, individuals involved or witnesses to the harassment. Save any relevant communication, such as emails, messages or voicemails. This documentation can serve as crucial evidence if further action is required. 

Note for ER/HR teams: ER/HR professionals don’t have to wait on a report of workplace harassment to act. Once negative behavior is recognized, you can start to collect evidence and open a case internally. Many employees worry there will be consequences for reporting harassing behavior, which prevents them from coming forward. Taking action directly demonstrates a culture of accountability and commitment from ER to addressing harassment in the workplace. 

Step 3: Escalate the situation to management or HR 

If the harassment persists (or if you’re uncomfortable or unsafe addressing the issue directly), report the incidents to your immediate supervisor and/or the HR team. Provide your evidence and account of events. This step is essential for involving the appropriate channels within the organization to address and investigate the situation.  

Note for ER/HR teams: When workplace harassment goes unreported, it’s often because affected employees don’t feel safe doing so. They worry that by attaching their names to a report, they’ll be targeted later for creating trouble for the organization. 

Ideally, your organization should have some method of reporting workplace harassment anonymously. This should also be well advertised, so that employees know how to report workplace harassment, and who to report it to, should the situation arise. Use regular trainings to communicate this tool to keep it top-of-mind with your employees, and be sure to share what happens when the company receives concerns from employees, so they know what to expect and are reassured that there’s a process in place to address any issues. 

For more on how anonymous workplace reporting might be useful to your organization, click here.  

Step 4: Prevent retaliation 

If you’re an ER/HR professional, it’s crucial to ensure that that no retaliation takes place throughout this process. Retaliation against those who report harassment is strictly prohibited by law. Equally, preemptive retaliation against the alleged harasser can open your organization up to legal risk if the report of harassment is unfounded. 

Focus on following the established reporting procedures to ensure a fair and thorough investigation. If you encounter any retaliation, report it. A commitment to non-retaliation is vital for fostering a culture of accountability and transparency when addressing workplace harassment. 

What happens after a workplace harassment report is filed? 

Once a workplace harassment report is filed, ER/HR teams typically launch an investigation to assess the validity of the claims and determine an appropriate course of action. This process involves gathering information from all parties involved, including the person reporting the harassment and the subject of the investigation. This may include interviews and reviewing all available evidence. 

The goal of the investigation is to establish a complete and unbiased understanding of the situation. Confidentiality is critical to protecting the privacy of those involved.  

After the investigation is complete, ER/HR will take appropriate action based on its findings. This action may range from providing additional training to the involved parties, implementing disciplinary measures, or terminating the employment of the individual responsible for the harassment. 

It is essential for organizations to communicate the outcomes of the investigation to all involved parties while maintaining confidentiality and sensitivity. A transparent and decisive response is crucial in fostering a safe and respectful workplace environment. 

Note to ER/HR teams: For a complete guide to conducting a workplace investigation, click here. 

Why it’s important to report workplace harassment 

Reporting workplace harassment is crucial for maintaining a safe, respectful work environment. However, HR Acuity’s 2023 Workplace Harassment and Misconduct Insights report found that only 58% of employees reported the poor behaviors they experienced or witnessed.  

Whether you’re a witness or a complainant, taking action is essential for several reasons: 

  1. Ensures a safe workplace: Reporting harassment promotes an environment where employees feel secure, valued and respected. 
  2. Prevents escalation: Timely reporting prevents harassment from escalating, safeguarding employee morale, productivity and retention. 
  3. Protects individuals and their careers: Reporting protects victims and ensures accountability, preventing further harm and promoting fairness and respect. 

Improve the workplace by reporting incidents of workplace harassment 

There’s no faster way to destroy company culture and crater morale than letting workplace harassment go unchecked. Addressing the issue starts with recognizing the signs of workplace harassment and knowing how to report it. Employees and ER/HR teams should be well versed in both. 

Handling workplace harassment should be straightforward, given you have the proper tools and procedures in place. Offering anonymous reporting options make it easy for employees to report unsafe work conditions without fear of retaliation from their teams or their managers.  

More articles on workplace investigations 

The 10 Most Common Types of Workplace Harassment 

Hostile Work Environment: Definition & Signs | HR Acuity   

When Harassment Happens Outside of the Office | HR Acuity 

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