August 9, 2022

You hope it never happens—the dreaded harassment complaint. But you work with humans, and workplace harassment still occurs today. In fact, the EEO reports that discrimination based on retaliation, disability, race, or sex makes up more than 30% of all charges. 

Employers are responsible for ensuring safe and healthy workplaces. This includes taking steps to prevent harassment and responding appropriately once a complaint has been made. So how should you handle these serious situations? It all comes down to four essential components: 

  • Create a respectful workplace with a zero-tolerance harassment policy
  • Develop a solid anti-harassment policy
  • Create a thorough harassment complaint and investigation procedure
  • Train employees (both management and rank-and-file) on the policy and procedures

Let’s review all of this below.

Create a harassment-free workplace.

Every organization should make it a priority to create a safe, harassment-free workplace. Harassment is not only illegal but also harms employee morale and productivity. To prevent dangerous scenarios, create a work environment that is respectful and nonjudgmental by: 

  • Clearly defining expectations for behavior
  • Ensuring employees know what constitutes harassment
  • Providing training on harassment prevention
  • Reinforcing the message that sexual harassment of any kind is unacceptable in the company

Unfortunately, harassment may still occur, so employers must have a solid anti-harassment policy and complaint and investigation procedures in place.

Develop and distribute an anti-harassment policy.

Your company should have an anti-harassment policy that is clear, concise, and easy to understand. Be sure to: 

  • Distribute the policy to all employees in your organization
  • Post it in a visible location
  • Notify and train new employees on the policy when they are hired
  • Conduct annual training on the policy and inform employees of their rights and responsibilities

Learn more about what to include in your anti-harassment policy.

Establish complaint procedures.

Establishing a clear complaint procedure is the first step to ensuring that employees know how and where to file complaints. Your anti-harassment policy should outline:

  • Who can file a complaint: Note that any employee who has been harassed or witnessed workplace harassment can and should report it.
  • How to file a complaint: How can employees contact HR? Is there an online form or contact information? Will someone from HR follow up with them? If so, how long will it take?
  • Where they may go for further help: If someone comes forward with allegations of harassment by another coworker, what will the process be for investigating and resolving the issue?

Educate everyone on how to handle complaints.

To resolve harassment complaints fairly and effectively, it’s essential to train employees on the process. Employers should conduct separate company-wide and manager-specific training. Your HR team should educate:

  • All employees on how to recognize harassment and report it
  • Supervisors on how to respond to and investigate complaints of harassment
  • Management on how to resolve complaints of harassment (if necessary)

You should also train managers who supervise people who are likely targets for harassment so that they can educate those workers about what their rights are, which may help them avoid unsafe situations in the first place.

Provide multiple avenues for complaints.

Some business owners may want to create a specific department within their company to deal with harassment complaints. This can be effective in giving the person filing the complaint a designated “go-to” person who can help guide them through any legal proceedings or disciplinary actions that might be necessary. However, if this is not feasible for your business (which is common), it is still vital that all employees know who else they can turn to for help.

For example, suppose an employee feels uncomfortable around someone in management but does not feel comfortable approaching their supervisor about it. In that case, they should know whom else they can go to for assistance.

Don’t ignore anonymous complaints.

Anonymous complaints should be taken just as seriously as all other complaints. An employer who fails to take an anonymous complaint seriously could face severe consequences if they fail to take a non-anonymous complaint seriously down the road and are charged with negligence.

If you receive an anonymous complaint, you can use it as evidence against the employee in question if other employees make similar allegations against them later. However, note that receiving an anonymous complaint does not mean you must fire someone on the spot; it merely means that there is a reason for further investigation into what happened and how best to resolve it.

Respond quickly and thoroughly to harassment claims.

Once you receive a harassment complaint, you must investigate it. If you fail to act on a claim and the complainant continues to experience harassment, their well-being and safety could be at risk. An employer that does nothing after receiving a report can be found negligent.

Take every complaint of workplace harassment seriously. Even if a complaint is frivolous, it still deserves careful consideration and follow-up. Give them the time and respect of listening and addressing the issue. 

Follow these steps to handle harassment complaints:

Investigate the allegations thoroughly. 

Ensure you have enough information before deciding what to do next; don’t rush into anything without gathering evidence and conducting interviews with witnesses (including witnesses who may not want to speak up). A rushed investigation could result in mistakes or oversights that will make your decision less credible later on—which could lead to legal problems down the road for you or your company.

During the investigation, you’ll need to find out:

  • What happened
  • Who allegedly harassed the complainant
  • When and where the event occurred
  • How the complainant and their work have been affected
  • If there were any witnesses
  • If the incident was isolated or recurring
  • How the complainant reacted
  • If the complainant has discussed the incident with anyone else
  • If there is any documentation of the alleged harassment
  • If your anti-harassment policy was violated

Remain neutral throughout the process.

When a workplace harassment case arises, treat both parties respectfully and listen to their perspectives. Assure the reporter that you will look into their allegation, handle it discreetly, and prevent retaliation against them for reporting. 

Don’t let personal feelings influence how you respond; instead, keep focused on resolving any issues as quickly as possible.

It is often beneficial for employers and all parties involved to work with a third party to conduct workplace investigations. Outsourced HR firms often have trained experts and mediators who are familiar with the process and can remain unbiased.

Document every step of the process carefully.

While it is important to document, it’s also critical to be careful about how you do so. Maintain an unbiased, fact-based attitude and language in all communications regarding the harassment claim. This means: 

  • Using neutral, unemotional language in all written communication 
  • Attributing the description of the behavior to the complainant
  • Noting only the facts without including any opinions or suspicions based on the complainant’s report

Keep all details confidential 

Maintain confidentiality for all involved parties until you’ve reached a final decision about appropriate action(s) based upon those findings. HR and managers should also protect complainants’ identities when necessary. Only reveal them if required by law (e.g., if someone files suit against another employee).

Involve your employment law attorney. 

It is always wise to consult with your employment law attorney when an employee makes a serious allegation to ensure you protect your company. Your lawyer can guide you on the legal nuances of the situation and help prevent legal issues for you. 

You’ll also need your counsel’s advice if you consider taking legal action against an employee who is found to have violated anti-harassment policies.

Handle Workplace Harassment with Care.

Harassment should never be tolerated in the workplace, and employers are responsible for ensuring their employees are kept safe and happy. Start by creating a harassment-free environment by developing and distributing policies that spell out what kind of behavior is not okay. Then, train your employees on how to report any incidents so they can be investigated appropriately. This will help keep your company from experiencing legal trouble later on when trying to resolve such claims.

Do you need help developing a harassment complaint procedure or need a third-party to conduct workplace investigations? Contact BlueLion today at 603-818-4131 or to find out how our HR consultants can help!

The information on this website, including its newsletters, is not, nor is it intended to be legal advice. You should contact an attorney or HR specialist for advice on your individual situation.