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5 Reasons Workplace Harassment & Bullying is Underreported

Posted - March 2, 2023

It is not unusual to hear leaders in organizations make claims that their workplace culture is excellent. Yet, they mistake a lack of internal complaints for a healthy organization. Unfortunately, a lack of complaints isn’t the best measuring stick to use when determining employee satisfaction, engagement, and psychological safety. More often, a lack of complaints means more cases of harassment, bullying, violence, abuse of power, or toxic cultures. 

Top five reasons concerns go underreported

Most concerns go unreported. The top five reasons concerns aren’t reported are:

  • Fear of reprisal or retaliation
  • Lack of awareness
  • Embarrassment
  • Lack of faith in the system
  • Lack of support

Fear of reprisal or retaliation

Fear of retribution or negative consequences for bringing forward a concern is huge. Imagine you have a concern with your manager, you raise the concern, an investigation takes place, the manager is found to require corrective training, but now you have to keep working with that manager. Even if that manager is completely open to learning from your complaint, you will be fearful that your day is coming and your job is at risk. Read more about best practices for managing the workplace post-investigation here. The article was written by our own Paul Nicholson, Director of Workplace Solutions.

Lack of awareness

Some individuals may not realize that they are being harassed or may not understand the procedures for reporting it. In Canada, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety lists the following examples as workplace bullying:

  • Spreading malicious rumours, gossip, or innuendo.
  • Excluding or isolating someone socially.
  • Intimidating a person.
  • Undermining or deliberately impeding a person’s work.
  • Physically abusing or threatening abuse.
  • Removing areas of responsibilities without cause.
  • Constantly changing work guidelines.
  • Establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail.
  • Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information.
  • Making jokes that are ‘obviously offensive’ by spoken word or e-mail.
  • Intruding on a person’s privacy by pestering, spying or stalking.
  • Assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavourable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure).
  • Underwork – creating a feeling of uselessness.
  • Yelling or using profanity.
  • Criticizing a person persistently or constantly.
  • Belittling a person’s opinions.
  • Unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment.
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion.
  • Tampering with a person’s personal belongings or work equipment.

and workplace harassment:

  • Threatening behaviour such as shaking fists, destroying property or throwing objects.
  • Verbal or written threats or any expression of an intent to inflict harm.
  • Verbal abuse such as swearing, insults or condescending language.
  • Physical attacks such as hitting, shoving, pushing or kicking.
  • Unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome request for sexual favours
    or any other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.


Harassment or bullying can cause feelings of humiliation, guilt, and shame. Because of this, it is sometimes more comfortable for people to avoid the issue. Unfortunately, this often reinforces behaviours and can lead to escalation of the problem over time.

Remember that there are steps one can take if they are not yet comfortable reporting to their employer. This includes directly asking the perpetrator to stop, and writing a detailed factual journal of every incident, keeping copies of all important documents.

Lack of faith in the system

Employees talk and share experiences, and in many employment settings the information is not always accurate. If a perception of ineffectiveness, lack of caring, and lack of trust develops, especially because of how previous matters were handled, or perceived to be handled, people might feel that complaining is a waste of time.

Lack of support

People might not feel comfortable reporting harassment if they do not have a supportive network or if they perceive that people don’t care. This brings about the “watcher” phenomenon, where victims feel stuck because nobody else around them seems to care. This can be, and is often, one’s peers.

How to encourage standing up and speaking out

It is a combination of cultural, institutional, and individual factors that contribute to the underreporting of harassment in the workplace. Organizations must create supportive and inclusive environments that encourages individuals to come forward and report any incidents. Whistleblower programs can also be a help, but getting at the root causes noted above is critical as a proactive step.

Failing to address these issues is a big risk for any organization, and it is very clear that failing to invest in educational programs that addresses these concerns, will cost far more in the long run. Just consider the cost of high turnover, legal fees, poor reputation as an employer, and even reduced production from an unhappy, fearful, and disengaged staff.

Let’s remember: less complaints doesn’t mean a healthier organization.