Why does workplace harassment often go unreported?

Reports show that a significant number of harassment victim-survivors hesitate to officially lodge reports against their perpetrators. We explore the multiple systemic factors that contribute to the issue.

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

‘You know how he is’ is a common phrase many in the industry—especially women and those in junior positions—immediately understand. It refers to an uncomfortable moment where a victim-survivor of sexual harassment approaches a peer or authority figure but is told that the offender’s behaviour is ‘normal’ and should be accepted. The victim is told that they should move on with their lives. Forget about it. Let it slide.

But when we zoom out, it’s a phrase that has long-standing, perpetual impact on the way sexual harassment is perceived and addressed—both in an out of the workplace. It’s a phrase that points to the justification of sexual harassment, and explains why some criminal offences go unnoticed. It’s also a phrase that forgives a continuous cycle of offending behaviour without fair consequences. And most damningly, it’s a phrase that shuts out and invalidates the impacts of harassment on victims.

Only three in 10 victims of sexual harassment lodge an official report, according to a January 2021 study about workplace sexual harassment by Singapore-based gender equality advocacy organisation Aware and research firm Ipsos. 

But let’s back up a little: The study also highlights a worrying pattern in which people are unsure in the first place of what constitutes harassment, or whether an incident they’ve experienced in the past falls under the bracket of harassment. When respondents were asked ‘Have you been sexually harassed in the workplace within the last five years?’, only one in five responded in the affirmative. However, when specific harassment situations were described to them, two in five reported having experienced such behaviours.

Addressing ‘grey areas’ of harassment

Discussing the definition of sexual harassment is precarious, chiefly because it varies quite broadly by country or state. So when an employee receives an unwanted comment from a superior about their body, the matter becomes cloaked in technicalities that are not always easy to comprehend.

Joms Salvador, secretary general at women’s rights organisation Gabriela based in the Philippines, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that this puts the weight of the matter on the feelings of the receiver. Unlike rape or domestic violence, where more often than not physical manifestations of the offending act may appear, sexual harassment solely relies on the emotional and psychosocial factors that a victim faces. Salvador says that this lack of physical indicators could be a contributing factor as to why perpetrators may think it’s okay to harass others.

In the Philippines, national laws pertaining to sexual harassment exist thanks to grassroot efforts from organisations such as Gabriela. The Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 clearly defines acts of harassment and adds that it’s the duty of the employer to prevent or deter the commission of sexual harassment and to provide the procedures for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of these acts. Gender-based online harassment is also punishable by law under the Safe Spaces Act.

Despite that, 25% of women in the Philippines cited sexual and emotional violence against them as a key concern during the pandemic, and over half of young women said they have experienced some form of online harassment. These numbers suggest that there’s a disconnect between regulation and real-world prevention of sexual offences.  

“Our laws are pretty progressive,” says Salvador. “Unfortunately, a majority of companies in the Philippines do not abide by their legal obligations. According to law, there has to be an anti-sexual harassment committee in any company that has more than 20 employees. This is so that if any form of sexual harassment occurs, there is a clear mechanism for seeking redress, for investigation, and for appropriate actions or sanctions by the employer.”

Even with those mechanisms in place, Salvador says that there is a “whole entire social psyche” that needs to be addressed around the repercussions of sexual harassment. So long as the culture of normalising harassment exists in society, laws might not be enough as a deterrent.

Laws ≠ enforcement

Additionally, the enforcement of laws don’t always operate as they should. According to Salvador, the reporting mechanism in the Philippines involving the police and the court system doesn’t necessarily favour a victim-centred approach. This is especially the case in harassment cases where ‘severity’ may be played down by authorities compared with assault and rape.


“Even if [one] goes down the route of criminal investigation, police personnel are not very sensitive on the issue of sexual harassment. And this also influences how they treat actual reported cases,” says Salvador.

This, of course, also influences victims when justifying a report. In a situation where an act of harassment is one-off and does not escalate, victims might feel that it’s less of a headache to avoid the proper means of reporting.

For instance, Gabriela receives a daily average of five reports on violence against women. But in a year, only a handful of victims choose to pursue a legal course when they realise the difficulty of the process. In one particular case that Gabriela assisted, a woman filed a criminal complaint on a workplace harassment incident involving her superior, but it took up to 20 years for her to receive a decision on the case. She had retired by the time the case was resolved, and her perpetrator had died by then.

It must also be noted that victims may face distress in the reporting process as they are forced to recount their experiences—sometimes traumatic—over and over again to authorities. This is known as sexual revictimisation, and Gabriela is attempting to combat this by advocating for courts in the Philippines to allow for use of recorded depositions from victims.

In Singapore, meanwhile, Aware is currently lobbying for Singapore to develop a national legislation that imposes an obligation on employers to address workplace harassment. Currently, the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment (TA-MWH) presents a series of general suggestions and recommendations for companies to deal with workplace harassment, but it’s merely an advisory and is not legally enforceable. Meanwhile, the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) criminalises harassment-related behaviour but has limited applicability for workplace harassment cases.

Shailey Hingorani, Aware’s head of advocacy and research, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that the group’s proposed legal provision on employer responsibility comes with a clear definition of what constitutes workplace sexual harassment.

“This would address the present lack of understanding on the ground and the common misconception that only physical forms of harassment are ‘severe enough’ to be reported. A clear definition also helps set common standards of workplace safety to which managers can collectively aspire,” says Hingorani.

Earlier this year, Aware held a series of community discussions with 24 workers from MNCs, SMEs and start-ups who had experienced workplace harassment and bullying. Many participants expressed hesitation to approach external recourse centres or to take legal action against harassers due to concerns of retaliation, professional and financial consequences, and lengthy legal processes. According to Hingorani, women felt more vulnerable to such repercussions and were thus more unlikely to report their harassment.

“Participants also stressed the need for parties to be accorded confidentiality during the investigation process, to protect them from further harassment or bullying. If there’s a safe environment provided for victims to share their concerns and complaints, it’s likely they’ll speak up more,” adds Hingorani.

This accordance of confidentiality can be complicated in a workplace setting where investigation needs to take place and necessary sanctions may need to be commissioned against perpetrators.

Zarka Khan-Iltaf, chief talent officer at Mediabrands APAC, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that if an employee is making an allegation of harassment, a full investigation does require revealing identities.

“But what we would try and do is ensure that we are sensitive to them and their experience, and also ensure that there's absolutely no negative comeback on them from having reported this situation,” says Khan-Iltaf. “But the objective here is to not penalise someone for disclosing an experience.”

On the other hand, there could be cases in the workplace where an employee may want to inform HR or leadership about a situation while remaining anonymous and not lodging an official report. In this case, Khan-Iltaf says that it then becomes HR’s and the employer’s responsibility to deal with that information.

Cover-ups and whistleblowing

Is there a culture of harassment cover-ups in the industry?

In Khan-Iltaf's opinion, this is not an issue in the marcomms industry as workplaces have become more sensitive about what is appropriate or not.

Salvador, on the other hand, says that this is a common issue when dealing with harassment cases. There is often a culture of companies striving to protect their own staff—especially those in more senior positions. In a previous Campaign Asia-Pacific article, Salvador claimed that in the case of women coming forward to report harassment against agency leader Herbert Hernandez, Gabriela had knowledge of past reports being covered up or brushed aside by Hernandez’s previous agency.


Plus, if the case becomes public or is high-profile within an industry, it could even affect a victim’s future career prospects. In a recent discussion on workplace harassment by Aware, one 23-year-old participant who was hired by an SME said that her direct supervisor had constantly remarked upon her attire and lack of make-up which escalated to questions about her marital status and sexual preferences followed by continuous racist remarks. When she finally realised this constituted harassment, she decided to leave the company. But because her harasser was also her HR manager, she did not consider reporting it internally or externally. After she resigned, her supervisor continued to threaten her, telling her she would “never get a better job than this”. He also repeatedly tried to sabotage her prospects of getting a new job.

“Similar career-related threats are often used to silence victims, either with the prospect of career advancement if silence is maintained, or with the fear of losing their job,” says Aware’s Hingorani. “Young employees and those who have newly entered the workforce might not be able to recognise unhealthy behaviours without the guidance of their supervisors.”

Where HR managers and leadership are often conveying company policies to staff, Salvador says that the treating of cases of violence against women is an altogether separate arena that requires different skill sets. She suggests a dedicated mechanism within the workplace to manage these cases which involves redress, counselling, and a victim-centred approach. While it shouldn’t fall entirely on the shoulders of HR managers, a strong support system for victims must be a given in any workplace.

Khan-Iltaf adds that HR managers are continually developing their skills around dealing with sensitive and difficult situations. And despite a neutral perspective being integral in her role, merely following processes without acknowledging feelings may deter people from coming forward.  

At the aforementioned discussion by Aware, participants recommended that training—including anti-harassment programmes—be made mandatory for relevant stakeholders including government, civil society, and HR professionals. Skills such as understanding behaviours, conducting investigations sensitively, and conveying mental health resources to their teams are being advocated to be made mandatory.

An age-old culture

In this list of obstacles that prevent the reporting of harassment, one of the most important things that needs to be talked about is culture. Especially in Asia, most industries and workplaces still operate in a patriarchal setting where traditionally masculine qualities are favoured in leadership positions, and imbalanced power dynamics greatly exist between those in senior and junior positions, or older and younger.

Dahlia*, a creative who was sexually harassed by her workplace mentor in the Philippines 10 years ago, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that being the youngest staff member at the agency at the time, she “felt like a nobody”. In this case, her perpetrator—who she referred to as ‘kuya’ or big brother—continually made lewd comments about her clothing and one time molested her in his home.

When asked about why she was hesitant to report her perpetrator, Dahlia says: “He was already winning awards for the agency. He had established himself by then. So I had a feeling that I wouldn't be taken seriously.”

She adds that it seemed normal for men to commit acts of harassment 10 years ago, and the desire to report her situation didn’t seem dire at the time. When she noticed that her perpetrator was targeting other junior women at advertising parties, she and this group of other victims talked among themselves. However, there still appeared to be a divide between junior and senior staff when it came to the matter.

“At the time it didn't feel like the women fully supporting each other,” says Dahlia. “It felt like there was a division between the quiet ones versus those with stronger personalities who are more senior. Obviously, they're more confident and they're also more established.”

One other reason Dahlia held back on reporting her incident was the daunting thought of bracing her own family. Culturally, it is not uncommon for parents in this part of the world to encourage their children to stay quiet if victimised. Or they might use damaging language such as ‘why did you let it happen?’. This points to a generational divide in the way harassment is perceived which could subsequently lead to the internalisation of harassment by many marginalised communities.

In a separate interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific, Dentsu International's APAC chief creative officer Merlee Jayme said that the Philippines is a very conservative and Catholic country, which leads to hesitation from victims to express their traumas to their parents.

“You can't tell your parents if [harassment] has happened to you,” says Jayme. “You will be judged like, ‘How stupid could you be? Why did you even go to this point, what were you thinking?’ There’s labelling, judgment."

Recently, when Dahlia saw that another creative in the industry had publicly conveyed her experience of harassment with the same perpetrator, her trauma flooded back. And 10 years later, she made the decision to inform her previous managers and file a report through Gabriela.

Dahlia urges HR managers and leaders to “don't doubt victims” and uphold company policies accordingly. She also implores for greater awareness—especially among junior employees—about the definitions of harassment and their rights when faced with harassment.

On whether filing an official report has positively affected her, Dahlia says: “I don't think there will ever be closure. But I’m taking it one day at a time. I will have to deal with it in my own way.”

* Campaign Asia-Pacific has used a pseudonym for 'Dahlia'. 
* A version of this article first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific

What are the psychosocial impacts of sexual harassment?
Source: Shailey Hingorani, head of advocacy and research, Aware

The effects of sexual harassment can be short-term or long-term, and can include fear of others, depression, anxiety, anger, flashbacks, nightmares, numbness and denial. Many sexual harassment victim-survivors blame themselves, and guilt themselves into believing that they did something wrong to deserve their harassment. Often, these feelings can resurface after years, having been triggered by different factors.

For those who’ve experienced workplace sexual harassment, their workplace might no longer feel safe. This may hurt their workplace relations, their productivity, focus and overall engagement in work, and may ultimately lead them to resign from the company or even from the industry entirely.

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