September 6, 2017

investigating sexual harassment and discrimination claims

Amid a season of sexual harassment scandals (Uber, Fox, Binary Capital, 500 Startups, UC Berkeley, among others), this is a good time to share some reminders for conducting a prompt and thorough investigation of workplace harassment and discrimination complaints.

Here are eight tips for investigating a sexual harassment complaint:

  • Take all complaints seriously
    It’s a mistake to think any complaint of harassment or discrimination is trivial. Anti-harassment policies should clearly state that managers are expected to follow up immediately on all complaints.
  • Make the investigation a priority
    HR managers have never been busier, however, making harassment complaints a priority can save your organization time, money and reputational damage. And importantly, the more time that passes before you (or the designated person) start an investigation, the more difficult it becomes to get accurate information.
  • Create a plan
    Don’t rush into interviewing witnesses without first creating a plan. Determine who will be involved and the scope of the investigation. Before starting interviews, gather and review any physical evidence, such as email messages and posts, written material, photos and videos.
  • Be objective
    Look at the facts of the situation and avoid letting your personal feelings about individuals distort your judgment.
  • Actively listen
    During the interview stage of the investigation focus all of your attention on the individual you’re interviewing. While it’s tempting to check email and texts or let your mind wander, by actively listening you can pick up important details that can be crucial to the investigation and your decision on whether laws or policies were violated.
  • Put it in writing
    A thorough, clearly written report on the steps taken in handling the complaint serves as an organization’s defense against potential allegations of wrongful dismissal, inadequate handling of complaints and other claims, should they arise.
  • Follow up with the employee
    After completing an investigation and deciding on how to proceed, the appropriate manager should notify the employee who made the complaint that action was taken — although there may be details that, for privacy reasons, the organization cannot share. Managers should avoid discussing the allegation publicly, and should not share information about the proceedings with other managers or employees.
  • Make it known you don’t tolerate retaliation
    It’s illegal to retaliate against employees for reporting sexual harassment or discrimination or for participating in an internal investigation. And retaliation is not limited to the actions of managers. If anyone treats a protected employee in a retaliatory manner, the organization needs to take prompt disciplinary action against the offender.

Traliant Insight
The rash of sexual harassment scandals and lawsuits is a wake-up call for organizations to regularly train employees and managers on preventing harassment and discrimination and ensure they understand the complaint process for reporting workplace harassment. Bottom line: managers who hear about online sexual harassment or questionable behavior taking place are responsible for conducting a prompt, thorough investigation of all claims, while protecting employees from retaliation.