How to Effectively Handle Employee Sexual Harassment ClaimsGreg Garner
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 objective: When 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 respectful: The 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 calm: Everyone 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 retaliate: As 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 guidelines : If you have a sexual harassment policy (which you should) or diversity policy, 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 everyone: It 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 thoroughly: In 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 professional: Being 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 agencies:
- The 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.
Sexual harassment can never be easy. It can be a very confusing time, especially if you feel you do not have any recourse. There are certain things you need to know to make sure you keep a level head regardless of what happens. Here are a few facts:
- Do not quit. If you are sexually harassed, you are the victim. Don’t quit your job because you feel embarrassed, because you’ve done nothing wrong. If you quit and don’t see your claim through, you may be terminating your rights. Once you’ve reported the actions, sit back and wait. You want to make sure you have every option and opportunity to get your claims heard.
- Know the policy. Every company should have a written sexual harassment policy and training. Find it and note the steps of action. Report the incident to the designated representative. If nothing happens, keep moving up the chain of command.
- Write it down. It is easy to get facts confused once you start moving forward. Put your complaint in writing and start keeping a journal to make sure nothing is overlooked. Make sure you keep a copy of any correspondence you turn in to make sure nothing disappears. If you’re reporting sexual harassment, make sure you note your complaint as sexual harassment instead of a hostile environment. This will keep you protected under the law.
- Sexual harassment does not have to be completely sexual. You don’t have to be touched for your complaint to fall under sexual harassment. If you’ve been targeted because of your gender, given different assignments or being demeaned for any reason, this also falls under that category. Report any behavior of this nature immediately.
- A lawsuit doesn’t occur with one incident. It’s very rare that one incident results in a full-blown lawsuit. Sexual harassment lawsuits are usually based on situations that are very severe and frequent that your employment conditions are harmed. One instance may start laying the foundation, but it’s important to report any instance of the harassment. Your employer must investigate all allegations of sexual harassment and take action. If you start being treated differently, keep reporting the abuse, and report anyone who joins in the mistreatment.
- The harassed person may not be fired. Your employer may have to build a case for the person to be fired. As long as you have reported the situation and they have addressed it, keep working. Harassers have a hard time complying if they have never been reprimanded.
- This happens a lot. Sexual harassment happens every day. Know that you are not alone, and do not keep quiet about the situation. You can bring charges against your employer for not taking action.
Sexual harassment runs rampant in the workplace, but there are ways to combat the problem while maintaining your dignity. Understanding how to be effective moving forward can help you both personally and professionally. Here are a few tips:
- Take note of the situation – If a situation is making you feel uncomfortable and it keeps occurring, start taking notes. Be sure to indicate time, place, and what happened in detail. Keeping a journal will assist.
- Note all surroundings and witnesses – If someone was around who also witnessed the incident, make sure to write down their name and what they saw. You may need their assistance in proving your case later on.
- Don’t stay quiet – If someone is harassing you, do not stay silent. Let the offender know what they are doing and that you will not stand for their behavior. You should notify the person that you will be reporting their behavior to administration and Human Resources.
- Get help immediately – It is important to report the situation to Human Resources immediately. Also tell your immediate supervisor, unless they are the offender. There may be a sexual harassment liaison or program representative to help you with this issue.
- Start investigating – If nothing happens right away, start investigating. Maybe this is a situation the administration is aware of and have done nothing because of the person’s position. Start inquiring and finding out if this has happened to anyone else on the job. When you have others in the same situation, your complaint holds more weight.
- Call the union – If you work in a union setting, now is the time to call the union representative. This person is concerned about your welfare and work conditions and will work on your behalf to get the situation resolved.
- Do not sweep it under the rug – If the offender comes back with the same actions, be firm in your attitude. Report the situation again and let the offender and everyone else around you know that this is not acceptable by your standards.
- Stay calm – When put under pressure, it is easy to lose your temper and get angry. Even if things are not going your way right now, stay calm. You want to demonstrate that you are able to keep your cool even in the face of adversity. When you lose your temper, you may be viewed as someone who is too much into their emotions and they will not take your case as seriously.
- Stay away from the offender – This may be very difficult if you work directly with this person. Speak to your supervisor to see if arrangements can be made to move you to another area in the office to keep you away from the offender.
If your safety is threatened, it may be time to quit and contact the authorities, or if you are about to have a breakdown because nothing has been done. This is when you must take matters into your own hands and contact an attorney.
These steps are crucial when handling sexual harassment claims. When used effectively, they can keep morale high while handling the problem.