Understanding the biggest barriers to disclosing harassment

Making a disclosure can be a difficult step for anyone that has experienced or witnessed harassment. This is demonstrated in the low reporting rates revealed across multiple studies. Revolt Sexual assault (2018) estimated that only 2% of sexual assault cases go reported in Higher Education. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimated that 85% of victims don’t file a complaint when experiencing harassment in the workplace. The same can be said for racial harassment, where two-thirds of people don’t report (EHRC, Universities Challenged), and across most forms of harassment and discrimination. The numbers on under-reporting are consistently too high, wherever you look at the data.

It shows that most people won’t speak up about their experiences of harassment to the people that have the power and ability to create change. 

However, breaking down the barriers to disclosing harassment, and having people speak up and tell you about the inappropriate behaviour that is happening within your organisation, is the only way to stop it from happening and to take meaningful action.

Our platform offers people the option to choose how they make a disclosure. They can leave their contact details, or choose to do so anonymously. Anonymous disclosures provides the organisation with actionable data and insights, but also ensures that the individual only has to share as much information as they are comfortable with. 

Some institutions ask people that disclose anonymously why they chose to do so. Here are the most common reasons, what this says about the challenges we face in increasing disclosures and reporting, and what you can start to do to remove them.

I’m worried I won’t be believed

Fear of not being believed is consistently one of the biggest reasons that people give for choosing to disclose anonymously. 

It could be because harassment isn’t always obvious and easy to identify. Take hate crimes for example, there’s the obvious use of verbal slurs and derogatory language that, if witnessed by another individual, can be easy to speak up about. However, more subtle acts of hate, like exclusion and isolation based on a protected characteristic, may be more difficult to communicate, and increase worries about being believed. It’s also possible that this is fuelled by illuminating headlines such as the decreasing number of rape convictions in the UK, which still only make up 3.6% of all reported cases. 

As a victim of harassment, the last thing you should be made to do is defend the decision to speak up. ‘Believe survivors’ is a phrase that has been popularised by activists wanting to improve the experiences of sexual assault survivors that choose to disclose their experiences, but is a sentiment that we believe is applicable to survivors of all forms of harassment and abuse.

To overcome this barrier to disclosing, you need to take steps to create a culture of belief. This starts with how you communicate with those that do come forward. Anti-sexual violence organisation RAINN have some great tips on things to say when someone discloses an incident to you.

Encouraging disclosures, and campaigning to increase disclosures sets a precedent so that people can feel comfortable coming forward and speaking up. This of course needs to be followed through with a positive experience, so ensuring that you have trained people within your team to manage disclosures is also vital.

I’m worried about retaliation

Fear of retaliation is the concern that there will be negative consequences for disclosing harassment cases. This could include being ostracised from a group or team, being moved to a different team, becoming the subject of gossip or worryingly, being approached and intimidated by the reported party.

Not only can this be triggering, but it can put the individual in direct risk, and also have a significant impact on their mental health. Our research showed that 64% of people that have experienced problematic behaviour at work say that it negatively affected their mental health. Steps need to be taken to avoid exacerbating this impact. 

Having clear guidance and information outlining how disclosures and reports are handled can help to ease this process for disclosing parties. Should the case move on to an investigation, the same level of clarity around processes needs to be provided. Both should include detail on support available to both parties. 

Ensuring that this support is followed through is vital, as is the process of ensuring that those that make a disclosure have the ability to speak up about any further negative experiences, should they occur.

I can’t prove the behaviour took place

Report + Support provides a tool for disclosure, in some instances this might lead to a formal investigation. Harassment investigations can come down to a discussion of ‘my word against theirs’, and the burden of proof typically falls on the disclosing party. Whilst an investigation can help to uncover further details to shine a light on what occurred, it might not always be possible to prove that the behaviour took place. This difficulty can be a barrier to disclosures and formal reporting.

However, this burden should not automatically sit with the victim-survivor. Vexatious reports are rare, and usually indicative of other issues that need to be dealt with. Companies can and should have disciplinary processes in place to deal with false reports, should they arise, but the reality is, an individual who is disclosing harassment shouldn’t be presented with the burden of proof before they are offered support and told how the incident will be investigated further.

As an organisation, ensuring the investigatory process is clearly outlined is vital. It’s also important that you make clear the full scope of action that could be taken following a disclosure, from implementing and changing policy, to learning and development programmes, or disciplinary action. With this transparency, reporting parties may see the benefits in disclosing information, even if the outcome is to execute preventative measures so that the behaviour doesn’t continue in the future, as opposed to discipline seemingly being the only option.

Nothing would be done if I made a complaint

The solution to this is simple, but takes time. People need to see action to believe it, and build a sense of trust in your institution. Once you begin to take steps to change your culture, and communicate the action taken from disclosures and reports; both named and anonymous, this will encourage more people to speak up. 

Of course, with anonymous disclosures the action you will be able to take will be limited, and anonymity typically hinders your ability to take disciplinary action (except for say, if an anonymous disclosure is corroborated by CCTV footage). So ensure that you’re using this information to inform action in other areas. 

Another vital point is that you clearly communicate and outline what you can and cannot do with anonymous information. This will help to set realistic expectations of what action can look like, and can also help to encourage named reporting. 

There will always be barriers to disclosing cases of harassment, as the journey of making a report or a disclosure is deeply personal, and can take a varying amount of time for each individual. However, creating a safe environment for people to feel confident speaking up is important for all organisations. 

Without the knowledge and insight gleaned from disclosures and reports you won’t be able to take effective and targeted action on the issues impacting your community. Maybe: In fact, you’d be missing half the picture.

It is in the best interest of the organisation to create a speak up culture by taking steps to break down as many barriers to disclosing information as much as possible. We're experts in creating speak up cultures, get in touch if you believe your organisation is ready to create meaningful change.

Keep in touch

Sign up to our newsletter to receive monthly insights and resources.