How To Report Sexual Harassment If You Can't Go To Your Boss Or HR

Employment law experts explain the options you may have.

by Lucia Peters and Kaitlyn Wylde
Originally Published: 
A woman is working from a home office while being sexually harassed by her boss. Employment law expe...
Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman/Moment/Getty Images

There are two common pieces of advice that are given when someone is sexually harassing you at work: Talk to your boss about it, or bring it up with HR. But how do you report sexual harassment at work when you can’t go to your boss or HR? What if your company doesn’t even have an HR department? Or if your boss is the one who’s harassing you?

“If [sexual harassment] happens in a workplace without an HR department or formal procedures in place, you may feel powerless and unsure what steps you can take, if any,” Gregory W. Pontrelli, president and CEO of Lausanne Business Solutions, tells Bustle. “However, there are certainly steps you can take to protect yourself professionally and personally.”

Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal. It's a violation of Title VII, which prohibits discrimination of certain protected classes, according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). As Allison Green of Ask A Manager notes over at U.S. News & World Report, “If you're being sexually harassed or harassed on the basis of your race, sex, religion, disability, national origin, age (if you're 40 or older) or other protected class, HR has a legal obligation to investigate and put a stop to it.” Because of this, HR typically has a system in place for how to deal with these issues effectively.

But if your company doesn’t have an HR department — or if you don’t feel comfortable going to them — that doesn’t excuse your employer from needing to deal with the issue. “Every employer is responsible for addressing and preventing sexual harassment,” says Nora Cassidy, an attorney at Legal Aid at Work, whether they have a designated HR department or not. That said, the protections change depending on what state you are in. “For harassment, California law applies to employers with at least one employee. Unfortunately, the equivalent federal law, Title VII, only applies to employers with 15 or more employees,” so depending on where you live and the size of your company, your might not have the law to rely on for support.

Regardless, if going to HR or your boss don’t seem like viable options, you have other options if you’re dealing with sexual harassment at work.


Document Everything Related To The Harassment

“A general rule when dealing with any internal organizational issues is to document it,” Pontrelli tells Bustle. Save emails; take detailed notes on what happened, what was said, when, and in what context; the works. Take all these notes as soon as possible after an incident occurs, so you get the details down while it’s all fresh. “If you did seek therapy, be sure to document that as well,” Pontrelli says. “Be sure to CC/BCC both your work and personal email addresses so you have multiple time stamped copies of your complaint. Cassidy adds that texting yourself details of the event on your personal phone is an easy way to keep track and hold onto evidence.


Find The Right Person To Report The Harassment To

“Even though your company may not have a formal HR representative, they will usually have a person who has purview over these responsibilities. If there is no individual appointed to deal with such matters, the right person to approach is your immediate supervisor,” Pontrelli says. If your immediate supervisor is the person harassing you, or you’re otherwise uncomfortable looping them in, Pontrelli advises approaching their manager.

“An employee is never required to report harassment to their harasser, even if that person is their direct supervisor or the HR manager to whom they would normally report,” Cassidy adds. “If their harasser is in management, the law assumes that the employer knows what is going on and is therefore responsible. However, it is still a good idea for the employee to document the harassment and, if they can, report the harassment to another member of management.”


Find Your Allies

Being sexually harassed can be isolating, but you don’t have to go through it alone. “Identifying who you can talk to about sexual harassment is both strategically and mentally important,” says Pontrelli. “At work, you want to identify the individual(s) who you trust and can go to bat for you or give you advice — it can be helpful, but not necessary, for this to be a superior,” Pontrelli notes. “In your personal life, you should seek out therapy, if necessary, and try to build a social support group to help you cope through this emotionally stressful time.”

While it could be a good idea to talk to a co-worker for support, Cassidy says, “reporting to a co-worker will not change whether the employer is responsible for the harassment.”


Talk To Your Union

If your workplace is unionized, you may have built-in resources. “Unionized employees have more layers of protection, and their shop steward can generally advocate on their behalf to management,” Cassidy tells Bustle.

File a formal grievance through the union and try to get a shop steward or other union official to help you work through the grievance process,” suggests the non-profit organization Equal Rights Advocates. “Get a copy of your collective bargaining agreement to see if it discusses the problems you are experiencing. Keep in mind that if you use your union’s grievance procedure, you must still file a complaint (or ‘charge’) of discrimination with a government agency before filing a lawsuit in federal or state court.”


Consider Filing A Complaint With The EEOC

If, even after you report the harassment, no investigation is launched, no resolution is offered, or no solution ensuring your safety is put into place, you might want to consider taking it a step further. “At this point, you should look up your city or state’s Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office,” says Pontrelli. “Once you file a complaint, also known in this case as ‘filing a charge,’ they will investigate your organization, their handling of the matter, and importantly, your particular case of sexual harassment.”

Pontrelli says a civil suit found in your favor could award you damages for emotional distress, backpay if you’ve missed work because of harassment, or lost benefits. These suits are important not just for the individual affected, but for the safety of other employees. “Such lawsuits can mandate the employer to institute procedures to protect other employees from harassment, and require sexual harassment training to educate the employees on the importance of how to conduct oneself, how to spot harassment, and how to stop it,” says Pontrelli.

Before embarking on this step, you may also want to talk to an employment lawyer first. The AAUW has some good pointers on how to find one.


Make A Backup Plan

Sometimes, even when you talk to all the right people, and follow all the right procedures, the person who’s sexually harassing you may come away without a punishment. You might even have to continue to work with them. In this case, the best course of action for your well-being may be to leave that workplace, as unfair as it is. Consider job-hunting, putting aside an emergency fund, and building a fall-back network of people who can support you while you look for safe work.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit

This article was originally published on