How To Report Workplace Harassment If You Don't Have An HR Department

by Emma McGowan
BDG Media, Inc.

While you might think that sexual harassment in the workplace is an artifact from Mad Men days, it’s unfortunately still alive and well. It might not be as overt as Joan Harris being asked to sleep with a prospective client in order to secure her partnership or like the allegations of men in Hollywood who pressured women into sex acts with promises and threats, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. In fact, a survey by Cosmo that included 2,235 full and part-time female employees found that one in three women had been sexually harassed at work.

The #MeToo movement is about two related things: Sexual assault and sexual harassment. Some women share their stories, while others simply write #MeToo to stand in solidarity with other survivors. The stories that have emerged in the last several months are heartbreaking, harrowing, and all-too-familiar.

I once posted a Facebook status that said “That moment when you realize that you should probably just assume every woman you know is a sexual assault survivor.” It was weeks before the allegations against Harvey Weinstein exploded onto every news site; weeks before the #MeToo campaign highlighted just how true that statement is. I was being a little bit glib, a little bit bitter, but I just felt so defeated by the prevalence of sexual assault in our culture.

So with that feeling in mind, here are the steps you can take if you’ve been sexually harassed at work and don’t have an HR department, according to experts.


Ask The Harasser To Stop


Jana Tulloch of DevelopIntelligence tells Bustle that the first thing someone experiencing harassment at work should do is ask the harasser to stop.

“Identify the actions, let them know that you consider the actions unacceptable or unwanted, and request that they stop,” Tulloch says. “If it continues, you should speak to your immediate manager and report the incident.”

Jennifer Oswald, founder of the recruiting and HR company WeMoxie, agrees. “Long before I even knew what harassment or HR was, I had a #MeToo moment,” Oswald tells Bustle. “I was 16. It was my second job. It was my male boss. It was a restaurant. Who did I tell? No one. Now I know better. For anyone who may find themselves in a similar situation, here’s some advice. If you feel comfortable, say something to the person whose behavior is not appropriate. If you’re not comfortable (it’s your boss), report the incident to the next person in charge.”

One caveat, however: If you don’t feel safe asking the person to stop — or you fear they might retaliate before you have a chance to take it to someone higher up in the company — it’s OK to skip this step.


Bring The Issue To The Top Person


Of course, the issue becomes a lot more complicated when the harasser is your manager or someone else with more power than you have at the company. When there’s no HR department to report problems to, Tulloch says that the next step is to bring the issue to the highest-ranking person in the company. If they’re doing their job properly, they’ll “bring in outside legal counsel or an experienced investigator to look into the allegation and recommend solutions.”


Report It To The EEOC


The EEOC is the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They’re the government agency in charge of investigating allegations of workplace harassment. If you feel like your complaint wasn’t handled properly — or that you were retaliated against for making the complaint in the first place — you can file a complaint with the EEOC.

“Federal legislation only covers private employers with over 15 employees; if that is the case, then the complainant could lodge a complaint via the EEOC to be investigated,” Tulloch says. “For employers with less than 15 employees, individuals would need to take a look at the laws in their state regulating the various types of harassment and where they should file their report. If individuals are unsure, they could check with the EEOC as their first step who would be able to provide state-specific direction.”

Turns out, employers can actually be held liable for the actions their employees take. It’s your boss’ responsibility to provide a harassment-free work environment and Tulloch says that they’re “held automatically liable for harassment carried out by a supervisor that resulted in a 'negative' work experience such as a demotion, loss of promotion, reduced wages, or termination.” That means that regardless of whether or not your company has an HR department, they’re legally responsible for any harassment that happens under their roof.


Follow These Reporting Best Practices

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

There are also some best practices for reporting workplace sexual harassment. “Record the incident on paper while it is fresh in your mind,” Oswald says. “State the facts, and mention anyone who witnessed the incident. First and foremost, share this information with a supervisor as an incident report. Don’t share with co-workers before you report to a supervisor, as that may dilute the facts.”

And most importantly, remember: The harassment you’ve suffered is not your fault. That person chose to treat you in a dehumanizing, crappy way and that was their problem, not yours. Also? #MeToo.

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