In 2021, we are living in the era of “Me Too,” “Black Lives Matter” and other activist movements. People are standing up for their rights, including in the workplace. As an organization, treating every harassment allegation with care is crucial.
Receiving allegations of harassment can be jarring. It’s important to implement a strong protocol for dealing with harassment and keep your anti-harassment policy and training up to date.
Every harassment complaint poses a major risk to your organization.
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Knowing how to handle harassment complaints properly helps everyone involved feel safer and happier. To start, make it easy for employees to submit complaints. Offer multiple avenues through which they can report harassment.
Consistency is key when it comes to handling harassment claims. That’s why you need to create and implement a complaint procedure tailored to your organization’s mandate, size, culture and available resources.
Your workplace’s complaint procedure should include:
- Taking every complaint seriously
- Acting upon every complaint immediately
- Developing appropriate resources to resolve complaints
- Creating a procedure to ensure a healthy work environment is maintained for complainants
- Communicating decisions and actions taken by the organization following a complaint to all affected parties
Make everyone in your organization aware of this mechanism. You can even create an employee training program on how to follow these procedures.
When you first receive an allegation, keep an open mind. Don’t pre-judge the situation or make assumptions. Take every harassment complaint seriously.
Treat the complainant with both respect and compassion. Don’t brush off their complaint or downplay it. Showing that you are open and receptive to complaints encourages employees to come forward when they experience harassment at work.
Ensure the reporter that you will maintain confidentiality as much as possible. Many harassment victims fear retaliation from their harasser, so address this fear as you deal with the allegation.
After receiving a harassment claim, you need to make a plan on how to proceed.
Determine if you need to take any interim steps to protect the complainant. If they face immediate danger, moving their work station or escorting them to their car at the end of the work day may be required. However, HR Magazine warns that you should “be careful not to take action inadvertently that could be detrimental to the complainant.”
You also need to consider if you will need to take any PR steps. If you think the employee may go to the press with their complaint, prepare a statement. Planning how to handle harassment complaints in the media before they happen will save you stress later on.
Reduce the risk of harm to your employees and organization and conduct better workplace investigations by using our free employee complaint form template.
Employees often come to their managers or supervisors with complaints, as it makes them feel less vulnerable than going directly to HR. If this happens, you may feel confused about what to do. When you are wondering how to handle a harassment complaint, it is important to keep the following tips in mind.
When an employee comes to you with a harassment complaint, taking quick action is key. Inform the reporter that you are obligated to involve HR. Whether or not the employee is in danger, immediate reporting of the allegation protects them and your organization.
You may be alarmed by what the complainant tells you. Regardless, you must stay calm and neutral when communicating about the allegation to HR or a more senior manager. Be sure to:
- Use neutral language. Do not add any inflammatory adjectives or try to categorize the alleged harassing behavior using legal jargon.
- Attribute the description of the behavior to the complainant. For example, do not say “Mary was sexually harassed by Bob.” Instead, say “Mary came to me and stated that she has been experiencing what she describes as sexual harassment from Bob.”
- Stick to the facts. Do not offer any opinions or inferences based on the information the reporter has given you.
Communicating through writing (such as email) can take longer and often isn’t the most effective way to report a complaint. Instead, communicate verbally with HR about the employee’s allegation.
Company emails are not privileged and can be used as evidence if the complaint turns into a lawsuit. Be aware of this and make sure both HR and the complainant are too.
Once you know how to handle harassment complaints in the workplace, you can begin the harassment investigation procedure. When investigating a claim, remember to:
- Keep thorough documentation of every step of the process
- Look for opportunities to corroborate or contradict the allegation
- Maintain confidentiality of all parties as much as possible
- Stay neutral
According to Meric Bloch, creator of the Winter Method for conducting workplace investigations, “your job is to both prove and disprove misconduct.”
You are not actually trying to determine if harassment occurred in your workplace, but determining if the events the complainant related to you violate your organization’s anti-harassment policy. This mindset will help you to investigate harassment complaints with an open mind.
As an employer, the safety and well-being of your employees are high priorities. However, you also need to protect your organization’s reputation during a harassment investigation.
From the beginning of the investigation, beware of “off the record” comments. Should the complainant take their case to court, your organization could be liable. They may claim that the company knew about their complaint and ignored it, even though they asked to keep their complaint “off the record.”
During a workplace investigation, there are many reasons an involved party may file a discrimination claim. The reporter may feel discriminated against if you force them to change their work setup rather than the accused person’s. They may see being moved to a new station or different work hours as a punishment for coming forward. To avoid this, move or suspend the accused employee instead.
Make it clear to the accused that these actions are not an indication of their guilt and that the investigation’s outcome has not been predetermined. Failing to do so could result in the accused harasser filing a discrimination claim of their own.
Getting your workplace back to normal after a harassment claim can be difficult. Restore a respectful work environment for all employees by addressing sensitive and complex issues openly. Everyone may be on edge for awhile, so be especially open to discussing topics surrounding harassment.
Before you call a harassment complaint resolved, make sure you didn’t just stick a band-aid on the problem. Resolving issues the first time can help your organization avoid more harassment claims in the future. Ensure your investigation was thorough and included research into the accused person’s background to make sure they were not harassing anyone else.
If you decide to write a grievance handling policy for your workplace, use our handy checklist to get started.
Harassment investigations can be stressful and time-consuming as well as damaging to your company.
Make sure to keep your anti-harassment policy and training procedures up to date. These should be clear, concise, and specific.
Schedule regular equality and diversity training sessions for all employees. Require that employees reread the anti-harassment policy each year and confirm they have done so in writing. Teach managers how to handle harassment complaints that employees may bring to them.
Keeping employees informed about what behavior is and is not acceptable in your workplace can help reduce harassment. Taking these steps also shows that you are committed to preventing workplace harassment. Not only will your employees feel cared for, but you will also have a good defense in place should a complainant take legal action against your organization.