How to Handle a Sexual Harassment Complaint

Recommended steps for handling a sexual harassment complaint in your workplace.

Every manager strives to have a workplace free from harassment - a respectful environment where people enjoy coming to work. Unfortunately, incidents of harassment happen, including many in which the parties involved disagree about whether harassment has taken place. How you as a manager handle such a situation can determine your legal liability and the continuation of your culture of respect. Here's how a complaint should be handled:

Take every complaint seriously.

"Brushing off" the complainant or making excuses for her alleged harasser (both genders can inhabit either role, but for the moment the majority of harassers are men, the majority of victims women) will not help her when she feels that her space has been violated in some way. You need to meet with the complainant, in private, and listen to her issue.

Thoroughly interview both parties.

If emotions allow, you can also ask them to write what happened in their own words - and sign the resulting document. That should help keep the stories from changing later.

Act quickly.

Respond immediately with a fair and thorough investigation of a complaint. Saying "I'm too busy" or "We can look at this next week" is the wrong response. Time is of the essence - the courts hold to the standard that 24 to 48 hours after the incident is reported is a reasonable time frame in which to start your investigation.

Identify and interview potential witnesses.

Prepare your questions ahead of time and don't lead your witnesses. Who witnessed the situation? Who overheard the conversation? Had there been previous exchanges between the two parties?

If necessary, get the help of a third party.

It is sometimes necessary to recuse yourself so the investigation can be conducted in a way that ensures fairness. Are you related to either party? Good friends? Any personal involvement with either individual could make the situation more difficult than it is already.

Be ready to make a determination.

If you cannot reach a clear conclusion, communicate this fact and place all documents in the employees' files for future reference. If you feel confident that no harassment has occurred, explain your conclusion and define what conduct is undesirable moving forward. However, if in your estimation harassment has occurred, take appropriate action - from a warning up to termination.

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