How to Manage Sexual Harassment Complaints in the Workplace
Sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. It can be physical or psychological. In the context of employment, sexual harassment can interfere with an employee's job performance or create a work environment that is offensive, intimidating, or hostile. Sexual harassment need not occur at the workplace or during work hours to be considered work-related.
The most obvious example of sexual harassment is intentional physical contact that is sexual in nature, eg. pinching, grabbing, or otherwise touching another employee's body. Unwelcome comments or advances of a sexual nature, preferential treatment of an employee for sexual activity, and retribution for a sexual harassment complaint are also examples of sexual harassment.
As an HR professional, when a harassment complaint is directed to you by any employee or manager, you have an obligation to investigate the complaint. In fact, your obligation to investigate is not limited to formal complaints. You are also required to investigate any rumor about sexual harassment, whether or not the employee involved
has reported it.
While preventing all incidences of sexual harassment is the ultimate goal, if sexual harassment occurs you want to react immediately to minimize the injury to the victim. A strong and immediate reaction also sends a clear message to other employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. The following five tips can be used to help you conduct a thorough sexual harassment investigation:
1) Respond Quickly. Taking complaints seriously means responding immediately. Failing to investigate the complaint right away puts the victim at additional risk. Any delays in the investigation process should be documented and you should always keep all parties informed of changing timelines.
2) Know the EEOC Guidelines. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stringent guidelines on how to conduct a sexual harassment investigation. There are timelines to be aware of, questions to be asked, and procedures to be followed. Not following the EEOC guidelines weakens the victim’s case should the accusations end up in court.
3) Keep Good Records. Every complaint and investigation should be thoroughly documented. Do not leave any details out, no matter how small. Record dates, times, places, and people and make sure all witness statements are signed.
4) Interview All Witnesses. Ask the victim to identify anyone who was or could have been a witness to the sexual harassment. All witnesses should be interviewed along with colleagues of the victim and accused who may have observed similar behaviour.
5) Acknowledge Retaliation. Everyone involved with the investigation should be advised immediately that any form of retaliation against the victim will not be tolerated. Managers and supervisors who work closely with the parties should be briefed on the situation and asked to report any possible incidences of retaliation.
With these fundamentals in place, you will be well positioned to make a decision based on the evidence presented. You may want to consult with your HR colleagues or an attorney throughout the process or regarding your decision. Once you have made a decision and applied the appropriate discipline, don’t forget to follow-up. You want to ensure that there are no ongoing issues between the two parties.
As an HR professional your first priority is to prevent sexual harassment but, if it does occur, you need to ensure the resulting investigation is swift and thorough. Whether you hear about the sexual harassment through lunch-time gossip or a formal complaint, you are legally, ethically, and morally required to investigate.