So you’ve received a harassment complaint. Whether you’re a supervisor, an HR professional, or a coworker, know that the complaint is something to take seriously. The fact that you’ve received a complaint means the person who reported trusted you and your company to handle the complaint properly. Here’s how to do so.
Thank the reporter.
Reporting harassment is scary, and the more egregious the harassment, the scarier it is to report. So when someone reports, they have taken a huge leap of faith. Their report will help you and your company help the reporter and the entire company. Thank them for coming forward, and assure them that you’ll do your best to handle the harassment quickly and effectively.
Be patient with all claims.
If you’re in HR, chances are you’ll receive a variety of complaints throughout your career. While each of these cases require a different response, they all require some sort of response. If someone reports something simple, like a tripping hazard, but they don’t receive a response, they’ll be much less likely to report something more serious in the future.
Determine first steps.
Once someone reports, determine if you need to take any immediate action before the investigation. If you’re not working in HR, the first thing you’ll need to do is report the harassment to HR. Tell the reporter that you’ll have to do so. Let HR handle the complaint from here, but be sure to check in with the reporter to make sure they’re being taken care of.
If the harassment involves illegal or dangerous activity, it’s particularly important to move with caution. Contact the police when illegal activity is involved, and if you feel that the reporter or someone involved is in danger, determine how you can protect them while you conduct the investigation. This might mean putting the harasser on temporary leave, or moving the harasser away from the person being harassed.
According to the EEOC, 75% of employees who reported workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation. With a number that staggering, it’s no surprise that reporters feel better about coming forward when there’s an option to report anonymously. A good anti-harassment policy allows employees to report with anonymity, but you should explain to the reporter that when the investigation begins, you often can’t guarantee complete anonymity, especially in small companies. What you can guarantee, though, is that you’ll protect the reporter’s anonymity as much as possible, and you’ll ensure that the reporter won’t face retaliation.
You can also provide employees with a third party tool that ensures complete anonymity.
Both you and the reporter should document the incident(s) of harassment as thoroughly as possible. Cover the basics: what happened, with whom, and when was it? Then go into the details: What did people involved say or do? How severe is the harassment? How frequent is the harassment? Do you have evidence like emails or texts? Your company should have a tool to keep track of all of this documentation, both for current investigations and for record-keeping.
The investigation of the harassment complaint is perhaps the most important phase. EEOC guidelines recommend that your investigation is “prompt, thorough and impartial.” Investigate as quickly but as thoroughly as possible by reviewing documentation and evidence and interviewing the people involved. Throughout this investigation, it’s important to remain impartial. Simply listen to what everyone says, review the evidence, and find the truth.
In a CNN interview, the former Commissioner or the EEOC, Chai Feldblum, explained that top executives are often inconsistent with their harassment policies, especially when it comes to star employees. There are many high-profile harassers who are the classic definition of “star employees,” yet the news of harassment cost their companies millions of dollars in lawsuits and bad public relations. Whether you’re a CEO or a HR associate, know that even if the harasser is your biggest money maker, ignoring their behavior will always cost you more in the long-run.
When someone reports harassment, they’ll feel worried if they don’t hear anything, even if you’re busy investigating the harassment. Keep the reporter and anyone involved in the investigation in the know by sending periodic updates on your process. When you reach a conclusion in your investigation, communicate with everyone on what will happen next. If you decide to take disciplinary action, explain what that action will be and why. If you decide that harassment didn’t occur, be sure to explain to the reporter why what they experienced wasn’t technically harassment.
Regardless of the results of your investigation, you should follow up with the reporter. If the person accused of harassment was disciplined, has the behavior stopped? If they weren’t disciplined, is the reporter feeling okay about the results? This follow-up can be as simple as a quick email, but it’s important to show the reporter that you want to make sure that the harassment stopped.
In a Forbes article, Tracy Bittner, from Ionic Security Inc., explained that in harassment complaints, “Obtaining information about the ‘what’ is important to understand and document to support future concerns regarding litigation. But, the ‘why,’ I find, is helpful in determining if the situation is an anomaly, a trend or potentially something that has been ongoing and never reported.” When you take a step back to ask about the ‘why’ of the harassment complaint, you have the opportunity to look at your company’s culture, to figure out if the harassment is a sign of a bigger problem.
It’s more important than ever to handle harassment complaints properly. When you use a reporting tool like FirstVoice, your employees can report in a way they feel safe, and your HR teams can investigate quickly, thoroughly, and consistently.