Imagine that you’re a guy who landed a job at a mid-sized
company where your skills were a great fit and you were making
good money. The one big drawback: your boss talks crudely. But
under him, the department was meeting its performance goals and
as you grew successful in the job, he took you under his
Then one day, away from the office, he started to make lewd
comments about particular women in the office. These
conversations made you uncomfortable. You didn’t join in, but you
When this manager held meetings with these women, some of them in
their twenties, he sometimes yelled at them and left them in
tears. You were disturbed, but said nothing.
Then one day your manager joined you as you hung out
with a group of employees, including the young women, chatting in
the office. And he told a story of one of his sexual
escapades so obscene and vulgar, it made you nauseous.
… by doing the right thing, it put me behind in my career
goals, wiped out my savings…
When he walked away, your female coworkers’ faces were white. You
asked if they were ok, and they said they didn’t feel safe
working for the manager but they needed the job, so
what could they do?
And that’s when you decided to speak up and report the incident
to HR, just like the sexual harassment training instructs
employees to do.
Soon after, HR issued a statement saying the incident was
investigated and closed. Days later, your manager yelled at you
in a meeting and told you that you were being demoted. You
protested and were fired. The company’s official reason for
firing you was poor performance.
And then everybody got lawyered up. Legal papers were filed. And
you found yourself stuck. New employers wouldn’t hire you once a
background check yielded the ongoing drama. The lawyer fees ate
up your savings, leaving you unable to afford your COBRA
“I’m not upset because I got fired. It’s a terrible place to
work,” said the man who had all of this happen to him, who wished
to remain anonymous. “I’m upset because by doing the right thing,
it put me behind in my career goals, wiped out my savings, I
can’t afford insurance and I’ve had three migraines in the past
Damned if you do
Sadly, this story is not unique, says Dr. Heather
McLaughlin, a sexual harassment researcher and assistant
professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.
While many women fear that reporting sexual harassment will
boomerang against them, the truth is men who report witnessing it
can be equally at risk, McLaughlin said.
“Regardless of whether a man or a woman reports it, the threat of
possible repercussions is real, despite whistleblower laws,”
just last week, a male employee leveled
similar accusations at his employer of a few
months, Social Finance, better known as SoFi, alleging he was
fired after reporting sexual harassment that he witnessed. He
hired a lawyer who has reportedly filed litigation. SoFi
strenuously denies the allegations, saying that they were
investigated and “and found to have no merit.”
The uncertain outcome of speaking out is why sexual
harassment mostly goes unreported. One study found that only 35%
of young adults who were harassed at work reported it to HR or a
government agency like the EEOC, McLaughlin said.
“The same percentage, 35%, told a co-worker about the
harassment. There was a lot of overlap here, especially among
men, who rarely told a co-worker unless they were willing to
report it more formally,” she said.
That means that 65% of the harassment was never reported,
mostly because “they do not expect to be supported by their
employer or co-workers. So we found that many report the
harassment as a last resort rather than a first step in finding
an effective resolution,” McLaughlin said.
Damned if you don’t
There’s consequences to not reporting sexual harassment, too.
Typically, the people involved will quit their jobs, sometimes
taking lower paying jobs and setting their careers back.
While companies tend to worry about the liabilities of sexual
harassment allegations, unchecked harassment has an economic
impact on them, too. It leads to high turnover and high
absentee rates, McLaughlin said.
The man who experienced it can vouch for that. Since the incident
occurred, about two dozen people quit the company, including all
the women involved, he said.
Not reporting it and not quitting has other long-term
consequences. It means being “complicit” and working in “a toxic
work environment, and anyone who works in tech knows this is a
problem,” McLaughlin said, referring to the tech
industry’s long-standing reputation for frat house behavior.
The best outcome is that a company investigates allegations and
takes swift action to ensure a safe environment. And then it
examines its “own policies and behaviors” to see how
its culture contributed, she said.
The right thing
The key to successfully reporting sexual harassment is
documentation, such as videos or tape recordings, emails to
coworkers, or “Comey-style” notes of what you saw and heard on
your own computer with a time/date stamp.
Be prepared for a backlash, or to have your reputation called
“Be careful. Document the sh– out of everything you do. You
will be held to the same standard as a woman who reports it, and
will be treated the same way,” the man told us.
Still, those that do report sexual harassment often say they feel
good about speaking out. They feel like they are paying it
forward, stopping a wrong, McLaughlin said.
“In our research, this came up a lot: ‘I have a responsibility to
speak up. If he’s doing this to me, he’ll do it to someone else
and I couldn’t live with myself,'” she said.
Even the man we talked to said if he was put in the same
circumstance again, he would report the harassment.
“Yes, but differently. Having done this I can see now why
[reporting sexual harassment] is hardly ever done. It’s truly
hard to do the right thing,” he said.