On Thin Ice: How to Handle Sexual Harassment Complaints

Business.com / Legal / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Here are a few things your businesses can do to be as prepared as possible for potential sexual harassment complaints.

HR departments and business leaders never want to hear that an employee feels sexually harassed.

Whether the harassment accusation is founded or not, the employer can face serious legal bills and reputation damage if a harassment complaint moves to litigation.

Whether a complaint is directed at an employee, supervisor, or client, it’s important that businesses handle the situation as swiftly as possible to avoid escalation.

To be as prepared as possible for potential workplace harassment complaints, here are a few things your businesses can do.

Related Article: Enough is Enough: Signs an Employee Should Be Fired and How to Go About It

Be Proactive

Whether a complaint has been filed yet or not, it’s important to make sure every employee is properly trained on what constitutes workplace harassment.

Draft a policy that outlines your stance on workplace harassment, as well as instructions on the proper procedures for complaining.

This will give your supervisors the opportunity to try to settle the issue before the complaint moves outside the immediate work area.

Listen to the Complaint

Everyone who has a leadership role within your organization should be trained on handling sexual harassment complaints.

That initial conversation is crucial. If a manager dismisses the complaint or acts unconcerned, the employee may see legal action as the only option.

Managers and HR representatives should listen objectively and assure the employee that the matter will be thoroughly investigated.

Informal Complaints

In some instances, an employee may not be interested in filing a formal complaint. The issue may have even been brought up in passing, with the employee mortified at the thought of further action.

If you hear that harassment is taking place and do nothing, though, you could be held liable for failing to take action.

This is especially important if you’re a manager or HR representative. Once an employee has filed a complaint, formal or informal, it is your obligation to take the complaint to the investigation phase.

Investigate Promptly

Within 24 hours of the complaint, begin the investigation process. If you have an HR team, involve someone from that department in the process.

Research laws pertaining to sexual harassment, including the liability that applies to an employer who knows such harassment is taking place yet fails to take action.

Interview the complainant, getting as many details as possible about what occurred, when it occurred, and names of any people who might have witnessed it.

Interview the person accused of harassing, as well as any possible witnesses, making sure to stress the importance of keeping all conversations confidential.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has a list of interview questions in the Effective Investigative Process section on its website.

Related Article: Bullying in the Workplace: Is California's Healthy Workplace Bill the Answer?

Avoid Retaliation

If at all possible, separate the complainant from the accused employee during the time the investigation is taking place.

This is especially important if the accused person supervises the accuser. Watch for signs that the accused might be engaging in retaliation toward the person who filed the complaint.

Make sure the complainant feels comfortable reporting any retaliatory acts and be careful not to take actions against that employee that could be viewed as retaliation.

If you separate an employee from a harassing supervisor, for instance, avoid transferring that employee to a position that could be seen as a demotion.

Resolving the Complaint

Once the investigation is complete, it is the responsibility of management to determine whether the complaint is credible. If so, you’ll need to decide whether the harassment is serious enough to merit dismissal.

An employee who has a long history of sexual harassment may not be able to reverse those actions through training and discipline.

Separating the offender from the accuser permanently may be enough to resolve the issue, especially if the employee is interested in changing offending behaviors.

“Navigating the complex web of state and federal employment laws can be an overwhelmingly confusing experience for both employees and business owners alike,” says attorney Patrick Wandres.

“When disputes arise, it is important to quickly assess the situation and determine if legal action is necessary.”

Sexual harassment complaints can be devastating to a business. However, when handled properly, employers and HR departments can ensure they maintain a safe workplace for employees and their supervisors.

Related Article: EEOC Releases Enforcement and Litigation Data For Its 2015 Fiscal Year

By having a policy in place and knowing how to handle complaints when they occur, leaders may be able to resolve any issues before they can become serious problems.

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