Investigating Sexual Harassment Claims in the Workplace

Business.com / HR Solutions / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Sexual harassment in the workplace is something no one should have to deal with. But if someone files a claim or makes a complaint to ...

Sexual harassment in the workplace is something no one should have to deal with. But if someone files a claim or makes a complaint to you, it is imperative that you investigate the claim immediately. Never, ever ignore or disregard a sexual harassment claim that has been made against someone in your organization. A business owner has a professional, legal, and ethical obligation and responsibility to his or her employees, and this includes getting to the bottom of any and all harassment claims.

The top three things to know about investigating sexual harassment claims:
1) Listen to and respond immediately to a complaint of sexual harassment.
2) Assure the complainant that he/she will face NO retaliation at work.
3) Keep written documentation of all statements given to you by the complainant and the alleged harasser, noting dates, witnesses, etc.
4) Treat both involved parties with fairness, and without pre-judging.

Research and obey all laws

The first step in conducting a sexual harassment claim investigation is to learn the laws regarding harassment in your state, and what your duties are as the small business owner/manager. Make sure your business has a good, written anti-harassment policy, which is required by law in many states. If you don't have one, or if the one you have is outdated, it's time to upgrade.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)’s Questions and Answers for Small Employers for information about handling harassment (sexual and other types) complaints and investigations. For a great list of questions to ask potential witnesses and involved parties, the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance is the place to go. To find the closest EEOC office to you, search EEOC Field Offices. Click on Sample Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Policies to read the language and some sample policies to guide you in writing your own. Be sure to write your policy according to your state laws.

Talk to your employees

Start with the person who has filed the sexual harassment complaint, and interview that person while taking notes and getting as many details as possible. Remember, if you can find out such things as dates, times of day, who else was around, etc., you can at least figure out, objectively, whether or not the work schedules of the involved people bear out the claim that they were working together that day. Next, talk to any possible witnesses - usually co-workers, though in some cases, you might have to talk to customers or even vendors - anyone who witnessed even part of the alleged incident.

Hire an investigator

Unfortunately, it's not always easy getting to the bottom of a sexual harassment claim. After all, unless you've caught the incident on a security camera, or the incident was witnessed by several people, it's usually a he-said/she-said situation. In some cases, you'll want to bring a professional investigator to get to the root of the problem, especially if complaints are made by multiple people (about the same harasser), or if the complaints are of a severe nature (say, a rape or assault).

Hire a lawyer

If the complaint has gone to the government-agency level, or the employee is not satisfied (for whatever reason) with how you and others at the company are handling their claim, it's time to get your lawyer involved - to protect you from possible claims against you and your company, because the harassment occurred while the person was working for you. You should always cooperate with any investigations undertaken by the federal or state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), but having a lawyer on your side to guide you is a good idea.

Be proactive

If you're going through a sexual harassment investigation, then we don't need to tell you how detrimental a harassment complaint is for your business's reputation and finances, or your employee morale. Start now in training your supervisors and others to be proactive against sexual harassment.
  • Adjust the working schedules of the complainant and the alleged harasser so their hours do not overlap whenever possible during the investigation.
  • Keep an open mind during the investigation process.
  • Both the complaining employee and the alleged harasser should be told to avoid contact with each other as much as possible; and their schedules should be arranged - if possible - to keep them from being in contact.
  • To prevent future harassment incidences, consider installing security cameras throughout your workplace, including in the lunchroom, offices, and even on the elevators.
  • Remember that sexual harassment can be committed by your supervisors, a person of the same sex, and even your customers - and yes, you, as the employer, can be held liable for your employees' harassment by your customers.

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