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 wing.
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 stayed silent.
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 payments.
"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 so that he could speak freely about his experience. "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 month."
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," McLaughlin said.
In fact, 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.
(Intel Free Press/flickr)
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 into question.
"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.
More From Business Insider