Why Employees File Harassment Complaints is Not the Same Reason They Sue

“What is the number one reason an employee files a sexual harassment complaint?”  I’ve asked this question to over 50,000 managers and employees attending our Professional Conduct Training over the past 20 years and the top two guesses have always been the same – for money and for revenge.  In fact, these answers are so predictable that if I was forced to wager a large amount of money on my ability to predict the answer to one particular question, this might be it.

Of course, putting the relatively small number of false or frivolous complaints aside (3%, according to the EEOC), the real reason most people go to HR with a harassment complaint is to stop offensive behavior.  The money motive or revenge incentive guessed by countless CEOs, VPs, middle managers, and factory workers is a stab at a separate but related puzzle – why people sue.

Don’t Cause Hard Feelings

However, even this puzzle is more complex.  Having served as an expert witness in a number of emotional distress-as-a-result-of-harassment-or-discrimination claims, I can tell you that the neither money nor simple revenge tops the list of any plaintiff I’ve evaluated.

Feelings – not money – drive an employee to the lawyer’s office and into the court system. The vast majority of normal people file charges because they don’t feel valued, respected and listened to.  Perhaps the manager made excuses for the alleged offender or the person conducting the investigation was best friends with the person accused.  Maybe the investigator decided to address a previously undocumented – and unaddressed – performance problem as part of the investigation.  Maybe the person who was accused was never given a chance to tell his side or the story – or was fired just because it seemed safer (even though the investigation was inconclusive).

The Bottom Line

Most people don’t file lawsuits just because a manager told a sexual joke or a coworker kept asking them out over and over again.  They file lawsuits because, after they complain about it, something else happens to them.

When employees are treated unfairly or insensitively, litigation can carry immense psychic and otherwise perceived benefits – to teach the company a lesson, to be taken seriously, etc. Later this week, we’ll look at some scenarios that just beg employees to call an attorney and some preventative strategies employees can take before money becomes the measuring stick of justice.

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One Comment on “Why Employees File Harassment Complaints is Not the Same Reason They Sue”


  1. Nice job.. this post impressed me very much..
    Thanks for the post.


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