How To Report Sexual Harassment At Work When You Can't Go To Your Boss Or HR

There are two common pieces of advice that are typically given when someone is suffering from sexual harassment 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 boss is the one who’s harassing you? What if your company doesn’t even have an HR department? What if you’re a freelancer or a contractor, or you work, say, in a restaurant, as an entertainer, or in another job that isn't a 9-to-5 office job with benefits? “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, HCS, president and CEO of Lausanne Business Solutions, tells Bustle in an interview. “However, there are certainly steps you can take to protect yourself professionally and personally as well as remedy the situation if something happens.”

Make no bones about it: 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). And that means that, 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.” Indeed, says Green, “HR is often better to approach in this situation than your boss, because HR staff tend to be aware that they need to handle these issues seriously and carefully and are generally trained in how to proceed (whereas your boss may or may not be).”

But if your company doesn’t have an HR department, that doesn’t excuse your employer from needing to deal with the issue. Suzanne Lucas, who runs the website Evil HR Lady, points out over at The Balance (emphasis mine), “If your coworker is sexually harassing you, the company is still obligated to stop the harassment, even without an HR manager to conduct the investigation.” The law is clear: Sexual harassment is not permissible, whether you have an HR department or not or whether you feel you can go to your boss for help or not.

Here are steps you can take if you’re dealing with sexual harassment at work and you’re in a position where going to HR or your boss don’t seem like viable options.



“A general rule when dealing with any internal organizational issues is to document, document, document,” Pontrelli tells Bustle, adding, “In the case of sexual harassment, this is crucially important.” Save emails; take detailed notes on what happened, what was said, when, and in what context; the works. Take all these notes as soon after a documentable instance occurs as possible, so you get the details down while it’s all fresh. Says Pontrelli, “If you did seek therapy, be sure to document that as well.” Also, make sure that you keep this documentation in a safe place. “You want to keep this as separate from official work documents as you can so that they can't ever take the documentation away from you,” writes Suzanne Lucas at The Balance.

Pontrelli also recommends putting your complaint in writing so as to create a paper trail. “You should do this by first sending an email detailing your complaint,” he tells Bustle. “Be sure to CC/BCC both your work and personal email addresses so you have multiple time stamped copies of your complaint.


Find The Right Person To Bring The Issue To


As Suzanne Lucas notes, even if your company or workplace doesn’t have an HR department or manager, someone still has to handle all of those HR-related tasks: “Somebody has to make job offers and determine salaries. Someone has to fill out leave of absence paperwork. Somebody has to make the decision on company health insurance,” she writes at The Balance. This is the person you can go to in lieu of an actual HR manager or department. Says Lucas, “That person should be knowledgeable about what is going on, even if she isn’t well versed in what an HR manager should do.”

Pontrelli agrees, telling Bustle, “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.”

However, if your immediate supervisor is the one who’s perpetrating the harassment


Report The Issue To Someone Higher Up

While it’s true that going over your boss’ head isn’t something you should be doing on a regular basis, if your boss is the problem, then you might have to do just that. In this case, you'll probably want to start by going to your boss' boss (your "grandboss," so to speak). “If your immediate supervisor is the perpetrator of the unwanted sexual advances, you should approach their manager,” says Pontrelli.

However, Jo Ellen Whitney notes at HR Hero that you may have more than one option. “Find a champion or someone who can assist you in managing the issues and concerns regarding the complaint and the boss,” writes Whitney. “Someone above you on the food chain — or someone who has equal responsibility in your area — may help create a strategy, serve as a sounding board, or help convince the boss that he needs to stop calling female employees ‘sweetheart’ and quit patting pregnant women’s bellies. In many instances, assistance from an attorney may be helpful.”


Find Your Allies

Suffering from sexual harassment can be isolating, but it’s important to remember that 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. If you can, build up your Team You both at your workplace and in your life outside of your job. “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.”


Loop Your Union In, If You Have One

If your job is a union job and you’re therefore a member, going to your union is an option. “If you belong to a union, you may want to 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.”


Look Into Filing A Charge

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.”

According to Pontrelli a civil suit found in your favor could award you damages for emotional distress, backpay if you’ve missed work because of it, and lost benefits; what’s more, if you missed out on a job opportunity or promotion because of sexual harassment — for instance, if you declined advance made towards you and missed out on an opportunity as a result —your employer might be required to put you into that missed role

What’s more, the effects might be wider reaching, as well: “Importantly, 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.

(Note: You may also want to talk to an employment lawyer first. The AAUW has some good pointers on how to find one.)


Get Out Of There

This is, of course, easier said than done; there are a wide variety of absolutely valid reasons that someone might not be able to quit a job. But your safety is of the utmost importance, so if you can’t or don’t want to fight a big sexual harassment fight, you just need to get out of a bad work situation, and you're able to do so, you should absolutely give yourself permission to leave. Start job hunting, if you aren’t already; build an Eff Off Fund; consult Team You to see if anyone might be able to lend you a couch to sleep on for a short while if the worst case scenario happens and you have to quit for your own personal safety without having another job lined up and no savings.

Do whatever you have to in order to keep yourself safe. Because your security — and your life — matter.

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