Even though the #MeToo movement garnered significant publicity and drew a lot of attention to a serious problem, like any other news story, it was overshadowed by other world events and interest in the story waned. Workplace harassment is still an ongoing issue in the United States, and one of the main reasons why is because it goes unreported all too often. A January 2021 study revealed that just three out of every 10 sexual harassment targets file official reports, letting offenders and abusers get away without fair consequences. Not only does this lack of reporting allow the cycle to continue, but it also invalidates the serious impact of harassment on employees.
Reasons Why Discrimination Is Not Reported
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) believes that the situation is even more dire, claiming that 94 percent of people do not report discrimination in the workplace. One of the leading causes is the tendency for workplaces to normalize these kinds of unlawful behaviors. Over time, the discrimination becomes so common that employees and companies accept it as work as usual. Those who feel the need to speak up for their rights, and their dignity, might feel strong peer pressure to keep quiet. They also worry about facing retaliation, as in being fired, demoted, or passed over for promotions. Even though federal and state laws prohibit any kind of retaliation against employees who report discrimination, those targeted are still too afraid to take action.
Another contributing factor to a lack of reporting is confusion. To begin with, a harassed worker might not even realize that they are being harassed or discriminated against. For example, if other employees regularly touch other workers on the shoulders or backside or send out X-rated emails, a worker might think that it is accepted behavior. This is often seen in young, inexperienced employees who are taken advantage of by older ones who hold positions of power.
That confusion can also extend to the company’s policies for anti-discriminatory behavior. If there are not any policies or procedures for this, abused employees may be unsure of how to handle things and remain in holding patterns. It can be frightening to wonder if it is best to speak to a supervisor or the human resources department, and this combined with the fear of retaliation leads to many employees continuing to be discriminated against, harassed, and abused.
Why Else Do Employees Not Report Harassment?
Besides the reasons described above, employees do not speak out about being harassed because they want to forget about what happened and try to move on. Although this is obviously a less confrontational move and could seem safer temporarily, the abuser can think that they have gotten away with their unacceptable behavior and might continue to do it. Other times, harassed employees keep things to themselves because they think they no one will believe them or believe that filing complaints will not lead to any action being taken. Some workplaces promote cultures of “sweeping things under the rug,” or there may have been past cases in which harassment was reported and not resolved; this could cast a shadow over how the company handles employees who report discrimination.
Even when employers have trained employees about harassment and have established clear channels for reporting the abuse, it can be hard for the abused to find the courage to reach out. It can mean reliving a traumatic situation, which can induce feelings of anxiety, fear, and depression. This can then trigger a landslide of feelings if the person was abused in the past. Believing that a claim will not be kept private is another significant reason for not speaking up; when co-workers find that an employee may have been harassed, the fear of office gossip, shame, and embarrassment can be a real roadblock.
What Are My Rights as an Employee?
There are federal and state laws that protect employees against harassment and discrimination, and workers who take the steps to speak out against their abusers help all abused workers. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits companies from discriminating against employees and applicants based on their religion, race, color, national origin, pregnancy, age, and other protected categories. Title VII also makes it illegal to harass anyone based on those characteristics.
In short, Title VII prohibits sexual harassments and holds employers accountable when work environments are not free of discrimination or harassment. This means that although it is not strictly illegal for an employee to harass another one, it is against the law for companies to permit it or fail to stop the behavior once they are made aware of it. Employees cannot sue their abusers directly unless the abuser is the employer; companies can be sued.
Title VII does not apply to all companies, though. It does apply to:
- Private companies that have at least 15 employees
- The federal government
- State governments, their political agencies and subdivisions
- Labor organizations
- Training programs, including joint labor-management committees
- Employment agencies
There are also state laws that protect employees. Should you decide to exercise your rights and report workplace sexual harassment, your employer cannot ignore you or retaliate. They are required to take prompt action to stop the behavior; this includes investigating the claim and ensuring that the behavior does not continue. The response should be swift and effective, without any harm to the employee making the claim. Keep in mind that you, your abuser, and any witnesses will probably have to be interviewed during the investigation.
How Can I Report the Discrimination?
To report workplace harassment, employees need to follow company polices and any procedures. Employees who do not use the proper channels may find that their complains go unheeded. It is hoped that your employer has an employee handbook that was given to you when you were hired. If so, read the section that covers harassment and/or discrimination and follow the instructions carefully. Otherwise, contact the HR department or speak to a manager.
If you are afraid of speaking up, you can try reporting the discrimination anonymously at first. Some employers have helplines or other resources; they may even have an employee assistance program. Another option is to speak to other employees who may have been mistreated in the same way. When groups band together like this, it can be more advantageous than an employee making a claim on their own.
What if My Employer Does Not Take Action Against My Abuser?
Some employers do not respond appropriately to discrimination claims, and this is why it is important to document the harassment when it is happening as well as the steps taken to report it. You can hold on to any evidence, such as suggestive emails, texts, or photographs, and write down anything that may have happened, including the date and time. Keep all of this somewhere else than your office so that no one else can have access to it.
When the company does not take action, you can contact the EEOC; they are responsible for enforcing Title VII. The EEOC has been known to step in to handle workplace sexual harassment cases, but there is no guarantee that they will do this. You also have the right to file a claim with your state’s fair employment practices agency. If the EEOC or state agency does not handle the claim in the way in which you need, the best course of action could be to contact a qualified employment discrimination lawyer.
Philadelphia Employment Discrimination Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Help Employees Facing Workplace Sexual Harassment and Discrimination
Your workplace is no place for sexual discrimination and harassment. Having to work in a hostile environment can be hazardous and mentally exhausting, negatively impacting your work performance. If you are facing sexual harassment or discrimination at work, reach out to the skilled and compassionate Philadelphia employment discrimination lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. We will listen to your concerns and fight to protect your rights. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill, South Jersey.