As employment attorneys, not all our firm’s clients are victims of workplace harassment. In fact, we often have employer clients come to us for help when one of their employees has complained of harassment. Sometimes, by the time their case makes its way to our office, much damage has already been done. That’s because each of the proper steps a supervisor should take in response to a harassment complaint were not followed at the outset.
So, if you’re in a supervisory position in your company or organization, here’s what you should do right away in response to any complaint that has a discriminatory or harassing component.
How to Handle Harassment Claims
STEP 1: LISTEN
First, make sure your meeting with the employee is in a secure location. Listen to the details of the employee’s story, how he or she says she’s been harmed, and any fears of being retaliated against or otherwise harmed in the future. Ask questions, not to challenge or investigate, but only so you can fully understand the complaint for reporting up the line. If the employee expresses an interest in relaying the whole story, be willing to take him or her to a comfortable location and take notes of the relevant facts such as dates, times, situations, witnesses, etc.
STEP 2: GAIN TRUST
Assure the employee that the complaint will be properly investigated and that, as a victim, he or she will be protected against any possible retaliation. Caution the employee that at this point the story is between you and him or her, and that it is in the best interest not to discuss the allegations with anyone else, most specifically the alleged harasser.
STEP 3: IMMEDIATELY REPORT THE COMPLAINT
Whether you’re a first line supervisor, a unit leader, a manager, or even a director, your very next step is to immediately report the complaint to either your next management level (unless that person is the harasser) or to the human resources department. This will allow your employer, who has a legal obligation to thoroughly investigate the charges, to carry out that obligation. Generally it is either top level management or human resources who will assume the responsibility for promptly instituting a confidential investigation into the complaint.
In the rare situation where no procedure has been set up by the company to address such complaints and there is no human resources department, then you should protect yourself and the employee by reporting the complaint to the owner or CEO of the company. You should strongly urge prompt investigation if for any reason the top management is unaware of the legal obligation to do so.
How NOT to Handle Harassment Claims
Although the steps described above are essential to the proper handling of every sexual harassment complaint, you should also know which actions not to take when a harassment complaint is received. These include:
- Never make a judgment as to the credibility of the employee or otherwise draw your own conclusions about the importance of the complaint.
- Do not criticize or express doubt as to the facts the employee presents.
- Do not begin the investigation on your own terms (unless you are the one designated to do so by the company), such as questioning the harasser or other possible witnesses as to the allegations.
- Do not “sit on” the complaint, in the hopes it will just go away.
- Do not discuss the complaint with anyone, even including your peers (other supervisors), unless it is necessary for sending it up the line, and especially avoid discussing with others who may have heard “rumors” about the complaint or the underlying incident(s).
You may become aware of a sexual harassment or other discrimination complaint from a variety of sources within the workplace. These sources can include gossip, hearsay, rumors, or a story from an alleged victim’s concerned coworker or friend. Your obligation to report any reasonably valid complaint remains the same.
The complaint can also take many forms, including a casual remark by an employee that they want to “tell you something” but want you to “keep it confidential”. Your response to this vague approach should be, “I will keep it confidential if I can.” Then, if the complaint is in fact related to sexual harassment (or similar illegal discrimination), you can explain to the employee that he or she is required by law to confidentially report the complaint to the proper management.
Know How to Handle Harassment Claims Before They Happen
Before a complaint is ever received, make sure you are well-versed about your obligations in notifying employees of their rights in both filing complaints and being protected from retaliation as a result. You should also be knowledgeable about your employer’s policies and procedures in regard to such obligations, including where and to whom to report such complaints, and how they are processed.
Lastly, part of your duties as a supervisor is to insure that the company’s sexual harassment policies are posted, widely distributed, and well known to all company employees, particularly those whom you supervise.
If you or someone you know needs help or advice in regard to workplace harassment, please feel free to contact our office.