It is important to have a sexual harassment policy in place at every worksite. You should know what sexual harassment is, the company’s stance on sexual harassment, and the policies and procedures for complaints and investigations. When a sexual harassment claim is made, tensions run high, and there may be a lot of confusion. Knowing how to effectively handle employee sexual harassment claims in a discreet and professional manner can make the difference. Here are a few tips:
- Be objectiveWhen an employee files a claim, they are usually apprehensive, frightened and in fear of repercussion. Depending on the employee the allegations are made against, it may be difficult for the human resources representative or manager to believe it actually occurred. Even if it seems unbelievable, the manager or representative has an obligation to thoroughly investigate without bias.
- Be respectfulThe employee making the claims deserves the same compassion and respect as that of someone you know. When employees do not feel they are being taken seriously, this leads to outside interference and lawsuits. It is up to the manager or representative to assure the employee that their allegations are being taken seriously and give them a date for follow-up.
- Keep calmEveryone has personal feelings, and if you are the person who has to investigate and have a cordial relationship with the accused, remove your feelings. If you display any anger towards the person who brought the allegations to light, you may be putting yourself in a position to have legal action taken against you, as well as making other employees feel as if you cannot be trusted.
- Do not retaliateAs the point person for receiving claims, it is your job to keep your personal feelings out of the situations. Retaliation in any form is against the law. Some forms of retaliation are changing the employee’s responsibilities, hours, threats or even termination. This is a quick way to have a lawsuit filed against you and your company.
- Follow the outlined guidelinesIf you have a sexual harassment policy (which you should), follow all the policies to the letter. The policy should be included in the overall employee handbook for accessibility and easy reference to every employee policy of the company. This is also a good time to brush up on your sexual harassment law to understand what it is, what can be done and what you may be facing if the claims turn into a lawsuit. It is important to follow the outlined policies to remove yourself from any unwanted liability.
- Interview everyoneIt is your job to interview the victim, the accused and any witness that were named in the report. Find out what happened and why the employee may be feeling that the actions taken against them were sexual harassment. Take detailed notes and follow up with the victim in a timely manner. If there are any documents related to this issue, you should gather copies for your records, as they will help in determining what really happened.
- Investigate thoroughlyIn your investigation, you must go further than interviewing people. This is when your notes count. Read everything carefully to see if statements match or have discrepancies. Look at everything you can – work schedules, attendance records and other documentation that will help determine the facts. It may take some time to find out the truth, but due diligence will assist in coming to a resolution.
- Be professionalBeing professional means treating everyone with respect and keeping the investigation confidential. Other employees do not need to know that there were any allegations made, or that there is an ongoing investigation. Although offices seem to have ears in the walls, allowing this information to leak can lead to a lawsuit of a different kind – defamation. All your notes should be locked away to avoid prying eyes. When interviewing anyone, you should review your notes one last time with them to make sure you did not miss anything. Keep a journal of the entire investigation with dates and times that you spoke to everyone. Any decision you make should have written documentation behind it with a thorough explanation as to why you came to that decision. You will need this documentation if the allegations were proven to be unfounded and the employee hired an attorney.
- Work with government agenciesThe employee may take things further than your office. If a complaint is filed with a government agency or an attorney, the agency may step in to do their own internal assessment. You will be responsible for providing documentation. Working with these agencies and your in-house attorney is key.
These steps are crucial when handling sexual harassment claims. When used effectively, they can keep morale high while handling the problem.