There are few things more distressing to human resources than having to investigate sexual harassment in the workplace.
All eyes are on human resources to provide thorough, fair and reasonable investigation. HR must treat everyone involved with due respect.
When an employee alleges sexual harassment—no matter what the situation—you have to act fast. Both human resources and the employer have a number of obligations, both ethical and legal, to investigate any charges comprehensively.
There are several things human resources need to do, before and immediately after a complaint:
- Human resources, prior to any complaints, should have posted the company’s policy about sexual harassment. Make all employees aware that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, and all occurrences (without exception) will be investigated.
- Assign a specific staff member to take charge of the investigation. This person should be knowledgeable about the organization’s people and history, as well as the corporate culture of the organization.
- Structure a strategy to address all the relevant people, situations and information, as a way to explore the complaint. It should be based on the most current knowledge of the situation.
- Conduct a conversation with the employee making the complaint. Make clear that he or she is safe from retribution. Also reassure them that they took the appropriate action in reporting the incident.
- You must know immediately if there are reactions, threats of retaliation, or continuing harassment of the employee.
- Ask to hear the whole story from the employee. Make sure it is in his or her own words. Listen carefully and take detailed notes. Include all relevant information—dates, times, witnesses, etc. Be thorough!
- Inform the accused that a complaint was made. Remind them that retaliation or reprisals will be not tolerated. They must be patient while human resources conducts a thorough investigation.
- Assure the accused that the investigation will be honest and just, for both accused and the accuser.
- Interview witnesses with professionalism. Ask open-ended questions, learning all the facts. You need all the information to confirm or refute the allegation of misconduct.
- Interview the accused. Be consistent and respectful to everyone involved, be the same with the person filing the complaint and other witnesses.
- With information you gathered, attempt to reach a conclusion. Try for the most fair conclusion based on the facts. Consult with other human resources professionals, for advice on how to proceed.
- Make a decision if any harassment has occurred (or not). Discipline the right people, based on the findings. If necessary, make work adjustments or schedule changes.
- Nobody is perfect. Occasionally investigations have glitches. Even legitimate harassment occurs without facts, witnesses or evidence to substantiate an accusation.
- Following up helps prevent further harassment. Afterwards, contact the employee who lodged the complaint. As with any HR situation, document everything. All documentation should be kept separate from the employee’s personnel file.
- Remember, wrongly accused employees also deserve a follow-up and documentation. Whenever necessary, change working situations for maximum comfort and efficiency.
Legally, an employer should avoid any actual or appearance to ignore the employee’s complaint. All accusations of sexual harassment are investigated promptly. A reputable company will never allow such behavior in the workplace.
When investigating sexual harassment, there are a number of issues at stake — the trust, morale, and fairness to all employees. The actions of human resources (and by extension, the employer) will deliver a clear signal to employees. They will assume the same will happen in future circumstances.
If there are any doubts, you may want to consider immediately reposting and restating sexual harassment policies throughout the entire work area. Use good judgment for the circumstances.
In any case, complete and accurate documentation is required. An employee unhappy with the completion of your inquiry may consider perusing other legal action.
What are your best human resources practices for handling accusations of sexual harassment? Let us know in the comments! Join the conversation below.