In an ideal world, nothing bad would happen in the workplace—and if something did happen, it would be immediately reported and taken care of. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Negative things do happen in the workplace, and often those negative experiences come from the top—a.k.a. your boss.
However, many people are hesitant to report their boss for bad behavior. “No one wants to be in a dispute with their boss; it’s stressful, and employees may think they will not be able to win,” says employment attorney and workplace issues expert Peter Rahbar. As a result, the majority of workplace misconduct goes unreported. Only 41% of observed workplace misconduct is reported, according to data from Gartner.
But there are valid reasons to report your boss—and as an employee, it’s important to know both when to report and how to do so.
Let’s take a look at 5 valid reasons to report your boss—and what steps to take in order to report them:
One of the most common reasons to report your boss is if they are breaking the rules—or, in extreme cases, the law. This includes “violating company policies or engaging in criminal behavior, including fraud or embezzlement,” says Sophie Bryan, founder and chief workplace culture consultant at Ordinarily Different.
Sometimes, this is clear cut. For example, if you know your boss is embezzling money, that’s a clear violation of the law. Or, if you have a corporate policy against dating a direct report—and you know for a fact that your boss is dating the new hire on your team—that’s a clear violation of the policy.
Other times, breaking rules or laws is more ambiguous. If you’re unsure whether your boss is out of line, consider the impact of their actions. “If your boss is making decisions that may put the safety of their employees or the public at risk, whether emotionally or physically, it is probably a good idea to report this to people that can pursue any needed disciplinary actions,” says Bryan.
As mentioned, when your boss is breaking the law, it’s important to report it. And one of the most common ways bosses break the law? Harassing or discriminating against employees.
“Harassment and discrimination are prohibited by law and should not be occurring in the workplace,” says Rahbar.
Unfortunately, harassment and discrimination are extremely under-reported. For example, according to a report by the EEOC, only 30% of employees experiencing harassment based on a protected class (like gender, race, or disability) make internal complaints—and less than 15% file formal legal charges.
But harassment and discrimination can’t be dealt with if no one knows about it—so if you or a coworker are experiencing harassment and/or discrimination, it’s important to report it.
“If you feel that your boss is harassing or discriminating against you because of your race, gender or other protected category, it is very important that this conduct be reported and addressed by the company,” says Rahbar.
This is also a situation where you might consider contacting a lawyer.
“Before reporting harassment or discrimination, understand the coverage of applicable laws and company policies,” says Rahbar. “I also strongly suggest contacting a lawyer before or immediately after filing a complaint with the company regarding such behavior.”
Does your boss regularly yell at you? Do they hurl insults at you and your team members each day? Do they gaslight, manipulate, or make it a point to embarrass direct reports in front of other people?
If so, you could be dealing with a toxic boss.
“Many of us have read about or experienced toxic behavior in the workplace,” says Rahbar. “This could include many types of behavior that are not necessarily prohibited by law, but are demoralizing, distressing and unwelcome for many employees.”
Toxic management isn’t just hard on employees; it also has an organizational impact—so not only is it in your best interest to report a toxic boss, but it’s also in the company’s best interest.
“Toxic management behaviors are always unproductive and will inevitably lead to lower productivity, employee satisfaction, and employee retention,” says Rahbar—so if you’re dealing with a toxic boss, report it.
You’re responsible for your own success. But as your manager, your boss is also responsible for setting you up for success—and if they’re not, it might warrant taking the issue to HR.
“Employees take their career development seriously, and so should managers,” says Rahbar.
For example, if your boss isn’t giving you feedback—despite repeated requests—but is citing poor performance? They’re not giving you what you need to succeed in your role—and you may have to file a complaint in order to get the feedback you need to be successful.
“Providing team members with regular, thoughtful feedback is an important part of every manager’s job,” says Rahbar. “Failure to do this will not only reflect poorly on the manager, but can cause a bigger problem with the employee.”
Or let’s say that, despite repeated requests, your boss refuses to train you on the core competencies of your job. In that situation, the only way to get the training you need to succeed in your role might be to bring the issue to HR’s attention.
The point is, your boss needs to deliver certain things in order for you to be successful—and if they’re not giving you those things, you might need to report them.
While there are absolutely situations where reporting your boss should be the first plan of action (for example, if your boss is harassing you or creating an unsafe work environment), there are other, less serious situations where a simple conversation with your manager could be an effective way to solve the problem.
But if you’ve already had that conversation with your boss—not once, not twice, but many times? It may be time to escalate the issue.
You may want to report your boss if they’re “not addressing or taking necessary actions from staff complaints,” says Bryan. Why? If the boss isn’t willing to listen and make changes based on your conversations and feedback, reporting them—and having that feedback come from their supervisor—may be the only way to drive change.
Now that you know a few valid reasons to report your boss, let’s jump into what steps you should take if you find yourself in a situation where you need to do so.
Sometimes when you’re in a situation, it can be hard to see what’s really going on. Which is why, before you report your boss, you may want to consider “talking to someone you trust about the problem for a reality check,” says Rahbar.
Talking to a trusted third-party (like a trusted coworker, friend, or family member) can help you gain insight into the situation.
For example, “Are you seeing the problem clearly? Is it as serious—or more serious—than you think? Should you go straight to a lawyer or HR? These are all questions that you may not be able to answer clearly as someone who is in the middle of an obviously difficult work situation,” says Rahbar. “Seeking a trusted second opinion before initiating a serious complaint process is essential.”
If you do decide to move forward with reporting your boss, it’s important to keep a record of everything.
“If you believe there is a problem brewing, you should make sure to document it as it is occurring, including maintaining emails/messages/texts, and taking notes of relevant conversations,” says Rahbar.
Having clear documentation of the issue will help you back up your case to your human resources department (or, in more serious situations, to external parties, like law enforcement).
There’s no universal procedure for reporting your boss. Instead, if you need to file a complaint, you’ll need to review your organization’s specific policies and procedures to know how to move forward.
“I also suggest reviewing your company’s policies, which can help you to become familiar with and prepare for reporting incidents,” says Bryan.
“Some companies have policies that regulate conduct beyond what the law requires them to do. This may work to an employee’s advantage,” says Rahbar. “You may also be interviewed, which requires preparation. You should understand all of this before you initiate a complaint.”
If you’re not sure what your company’s policies are, talk to HR and ask them the procedure for filing a complaint or report. They should be able to walk you through the process—and ensure that your report is filed correctly and with the right person or team.
When you’re reporting your boss for some kind of misconduct, emotions can be running high. But no matter how upset you are, it’s important to take a professional approach.
“The main thing to remember is that you should always remain professional throughout the process,” says Bryan. “It can be extremely difficult, but try not to let your emotions get the better of you and refrain from launching personal attacks during the reporting process which might damage your credibility. Instead, focus only on the facts and the behaviors you experienced.”
Once you’ve filed the report, hopefully, your organization will take the steps necessary to deal with your boss, whether that’s taking disciplinary action, investing in more training, or, in extreme cases, terminating them.
But the process isn’t necessarily done when you file the report. There are additional things you’ll want to keep in mind after filing—starting with knowing your rights.
“It’s really important to know your rights and assert them when necessary,” says Bryan. “In some cases there may be moments where you experience backlash due to reporting an incident, so a familiarity with your rights is incremental to protecting yourself and others.”
Make sure you understand your rights, including any relevant anti-retaliation laws and/or whistle-blower protections; that way, if you find yourself dealing with retaliation, you’ll know what steps to take to protect yourself.
In the case of criminal or discriminatory behavior, you should consider (and be prepared to) take the issue outside of the organization. “If necessary, you may need to report an incident to external options, like a legal representation or government agency,” says Bryan.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine contributed to the original version of this article.