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How to Address an Employee Sexual Harassment Complaint

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Man prevents woman from moving away from a wall by the position of his arms

Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Harassment Are Illegal

Copyright Alina Solovyova-Vincent
When an employee complains that he or she is experiencing sexual harassment of any type, the employer has a legal, ethical, and employee relations obligation to thoroughly investigate the charges. Find out how.
Difficulty: Hard
Time Required: As Much As Necessary

Here's How:

  1. Before a complaint is filed, make sure you have posted and informed all employees of your organization’s policy relative to sexual harassment. It won’t be tolerated; it will be investigated.
  2. Assign a staff member to “own” the complaint. This individual should be knowledgeable about the organization, the people in the organization, and the history of the organization.
  3. Map out a plan that covers the important people and situations to investigate in the initial complaint. Basically, plan the investigation, based on current knowledge.
  4. Talk with the employee who is complaining. Guarantee to the employee that he or she is safe from retaliation and took appropriate action in reporting the incident or general situation.
  5. Inform the employee that you need to know immediately about any retaliation, purported retaliation, or ongoing harassment the employee experiences.
  6. Ask the employee to tell you the whole story in his or her own words. Listen; take notes. Write down relevant facts such as dates, times, situations, witnesses, and anything else that seems relevant.
  7. Tell the person accused that a complaint has been filed, and that no acts of retaliation or unethical actions will be tolerated. Ask the person to be patient while you conduct a thorough investigation.
  8. Assure the person accused that a fair and just investigation will be conducted on their behalf as well as that of the accuser.
  9. Interview any potential witnesses in the same manner. Interview any potential witnesses in the same manner. Ask open-ended questions and seek facts that support or disprove the employee’s allegations.
  10. Interview the person who is accused of sexual harassment. Apply the same listening and respectful approach you accorded the person who filed the complaint and the other witnesses.
  11. Take all the information you received and attempt to reach a decision. Make the best decision that you can with the information you have. Consult with other HR colleagues to do the right thing.
  12. Make decisions about whether sexual harassment occurred. Provide the appropriate discipline to the appropriate people, based on your findings. Make work or assignment setting adjustments if necessary.
  13. Recognize that you are not perfect, no situation can be perfectly investigated. Even when harassment may have occurred, there may be no facts or witnesses that corroborate a complainant’s statement.
  14. Assure that no further incidents occur by following up, and documenting your follow-up. with the employee who made the original harassment claim. Keep documentation separate from the personnel file.
  15. Afford the employee, who may have been wrongly accused, the same courtesy of follow-up and documentation. Adjust working situations fairly where necessary for the comfort and productivity of all.

Tips:

  1. Legally, the employer will want to avoid any possibility or appearance that the employee’s complaint was disregarded. Respond immediately.
  2. Ethically, the employer will not want to allow such behavior to exist in their workplace.
  3. The trust, morale, and fair treatment of employees is at stake. An employer’s actions send powerful signals about what another employee can expect in similar circumstances.
  4. You may want to consider reposting and reiterating your sexual harassment policies across your whole work place. Let the circumstances guide your judgment.
  5. In all cases, make sure you make and keep complete and accurate documentation. Employees who are unhappy with the results of your investigation may take additional legal action.
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