Reporting Workplace Harassment to the HR Department

Learn why you have to report workplace harassment and give your company a chance to deal with it.

Updated by , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

Many employees who are facing workplace harassment don't want to file a formal complaint. Perhaps they don't want to cause trouble, they don't trust their company to take action, or they fear reprisals from the harasser or coworkers.

While these concerns are understandable, it's very important to report workplace harassment to your HR department or other company decision makers. If you don't report harassment, the company won't have a chance to deal with it. And, you may be unable to hold the company legally responsible for the harassment if you don't follow its reporting procedures.

File a Complaint of Workplace Harassment

If you are being harassed at work because of your sex, race, or other protected characteristic, you should report it. (To learn more about what harassment is, see How to Prove Harassment in the Workplace.)

Check your company's employee handbook to find out whether there's a policy on harassment. If so, follow the policy's guidelines on reporting misconduct. If not, get in touch with your HR department and tell them that you want to report harassment.

What if the person you're supposed to report harassment to is the one harassing you? This happens sometimes, especially at companies that require employees to report harassment to their direct supervisor.

In this situation, report the harassment to your company's HR department, and let them know that you have not followed the usual procedure because your harasser is the person you are supposed to report to.

If your company doesn't have an HR department, report the harassment to someone higher up the chain of command, such as your supervisor's manager.

Reporting Harassment Protects Your Rights

Whether or not you report harassment may determine whether you can hold your company responsible for it. The Supreme Court has created some rules for employer liability for sexual harassment, depending on whether you suffered a "tangible employment action."

What Is a Tangible Employment Action?

If you are being harassed by a manager, and the harassment results in a "tangible employment action" -- an action that significantly changes your job status, such as getting fired, demoted, reassigned, or denied a raise -- then the company will be liable regardless of whether you report it.

However, if you don't suffer a tangible employment action, the rules are different. For example, perhaps you are in a hostile work environment, in which your coworkers tell dirty jokes and post pornography.

In this situation, your company won't be responsible for harassment if:

  • the employer used reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassment, and
  • you unreasonably failed to take advantage of opportunities the employer offer to prevent or correct the harassment -- for example, by filing to make a complaint.

The first step requires employers to make efforts to create a harassment-free work environment -- for example, by training employees and managers to recognize and report harassment, by adopting a policy prohibiting harassment and a complaint procedure, and by investigating harassment complaints quickly and fairly.

If the employer takes these precautions and the employee doesn't make a complaint, the employer will not be responsible for the harassment.

Once the company learns about harassment, because the employee filed a complaint or for any other reason (for example, perhaps the company president saw pornographic images posted on cubicle walls), the employer is legally responsible for any harassment that takes place afterward.

Once the employer is on notice, it is obligated to put a quick stop to harassment or face the legal consequences.

Protecting Yourself From Workplace Harassment

It is illegal for your company to retaliate against you for filing a harassment complaint. For example, you may not be demoted, transferred to a less desirable position, or taken off plum assignments because you reported harassment.

Just because it's illegal doesn't mean retaliation never happens, however. If you face retaliation after filing a complaint, report it immediately to the person investigating the situation. Write down any comments or incidents that you believe are retaliatory.

What Happens After You File a Harassment Complaint

Ideally, your company will investigate your complaint and take steps to address the issue. This might include firing or disciplining the harassing party, requiring that individual or the entire workforce to complete mandatory training, or taking other steps.

If that doesn't happen, you have the option of filing a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or an equivalent state agency. (Read more about filing a discrimination charge with the EEOC.) In most cases, the EEOC won't investigate your complaint but will issue a "right to sue" letter that allows you to file a lawsuit against your employer.

No matter which legal options you pursue, be on the lookout for any form of retaliation by your employer. In many cases, the original harassment allegations will much harder to prove than subsequent retaliation by the employer.

Contact an Employment Lawyer

This might be a good time to consult with an employment lawyer, as well. The company's harassment investigation is a very important step in a process that could end in the courtroom.

Getting some legal advice will help you evaluate how strong your claims are, participate fully and effectively in the company's investigation, and decide what to do if you aren't satisfied with the company's response to your complaint.

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