Has an employee raised claims of workplace harassment? Did you know that a 2019 poll revealed that 90% of workers suffered from workplace harassment?
No one wants workplace harassment to take place in their company. However, these events are unpredictable and are no one’s fault besides the offender. This is why it’s important to know how to handle workplace harassment when it arises.
Anyone can fall victim to workplace harassment. So, protect your employees and take the necessary steps to prepare for and address workplace harassment claims. Here’s a complete guide on how you can handle workplace harassment situations.
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Table of Contents
Understand Workplace Harassment
The first step in handling workplace harassment claims is to understand them. There are many kinds of workplace harassment, such as physical and discrimination. There’s also verbal, psychological, and sexual harassment.
Not all types of harassment are against the law, and some are only against company policy. Workplace policies about harassment should have a clear definition of it. If a claim ever goes to court, strong policies can prevent the offender from working through loopholes.
Things such as power can contribute to harassment. Not handling these claims with professionalism can also lead to a retaliation claim. This is why you should follow the set policies to avoid further claims.
Follow Procedures in Place
All companies have an employee handbook that should cover harassment claims. Following these steps is a great way to avoid other claims such as unfair treatment. This also helps you prime the foundation for a formal investigation if needed.
Workplace harassment policies and protocols may vary depending on your state and company. Always make sure to read your worker handbook on what to do in case you get a harassment complaint. Here are a few ways you can handle workplace harassment in your company:
1. Interview the People Implicated in The Incident
When handling a workplace harassment claim, always make sure to be empathetic. Always be open to their story and avoid judging them or giving unsolicited advice. Give respect and compassion to anyone complaining and always keep things confidential.
The first step in a harassment investigation is to interview the people involved in the harassment incident. This includes the victim(s), the harasser(s), and any witnesses. It’s crucial to get a clear picture of what happened.
Make sure to know the how, who, what, when, where, and why of the incident. Ask precise details on what got said or done during the incident.
When asking questions, you should be sensitive and choose your words. Avoid confronting the complainant and giving unsolicited advice. Many people shame victims without even realizing it.
A common way people do this is by making statements like “This would have gotten avoided if you had …”. Making statements such as “I would’ve defended myself or ran away” is also not helpful. Always remember that victims of harassment did not want to experience it.
If an employee comes forward months or years after the incident, avoid judging them. Avoid asking things like what took them so long. It is also best to avoid statements like “She asked for it.”
There are better ways to word questions that won’t attack the victim or shame them. Try asking, “What made you come forward now.”
Always investigate claims no matter how outlandish it seems to you. It’s also important to reassure the victim that you will look further into their case.
2. Look For Other Witnesses and Corroboration
Handling workplace harassment issues is tough to handle as they rely on people’s words. Both sides often have different versions of what had happened. That is why it is important to find other witnesses to get a better account of what happened.
Interview those who had seen or heard the incident. When doing so, it is important to check if these other witnesses are impartial. For instance, witnesses might not want to testify against their boss.
If there are no other witnesses, other things can help with your investigation. These include timecards, schedules, or even digital proof such as emails. In addition, CCTV footage is crucial evidence in these kinds of cases.
Gathering information from other sources can help provide corroboration to a person’s story. This includes timestamps, witness testimony, and recordings of what happened. This is important in ensuring you are establishing an accurate story.
3. Keep Things Confidential
Workplace harassment is a sensitive issue, and it is best to keep things confidential. This is most true for those who work in human resources. Victims may opt to share their stories with others, but it is not your place to do it for them.
Only inform those who need to get informed. You may also get a non-disclosure agreement so that none of the information gets out. Make sure that employees handling the investigation follow strict protocols.
Employees may first talk to other colleagues to get advice on what to do in certain projects. But this is not allowed when handling cases of harassment. Some employees might not know what to do since some allegations may be overwhelming.
This is why it’s important to have workplace investigation training for your employees. This training includes helping employees know what to do when they get these claims. With this, they have experts guiding them who can give them investigating resources.
4. Keep Everything in Writing
Since harassment claims are narrative-heavy, they rely on memory. Sometimes, people forget exactly what got said and done. This can be a problem in conducting an investigation.
After conducting an interview, reread your notes to the interviewee. Doing so helps ensure you don’t misquote or mix up any vital information. After that, write down the necessary actions you have to take and how you plan to execute them.
5. Cooperate With The Law and Government Agencies
Sometimes, employees make a complaint using a lawyer and even government agencies. Many organizations aim to protect the welfare of employees. This includes the EEOC or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
When this happens, the agency conducts an investigation and may ask for any files on hand. They might also want access to security footage and other relevant information. Some company policies might prevent you from disclosing your information.
Despite some company policies, it is still important to cooperate as much as you can. Make sure to state how you found out and the steps you took to ensure proper investigation. When doing so, always be cautious about what you disclose, as it may get used against you or your company.
If a government agency or a lawyer gets involved, it is also best to hire a lawyer. Do your best to provide any information needed. Keep in mind that they are gathering information for their client.
6. Consider Hiring an Impartial Investigator
While internal investigations follow policies and even the law, hiring might also be a good idea. There are many law firms and even consulting agencies that offer workplace investigations. These may come with a hefty fee, but getting expert investigators on the claim is a good option.
This is important if the harasser accused is someone of a high-ranking position. Internal investigations may get accused of bias or being unfair against the accuser. Hiring an outside and impartial investigator helps in clearing these doubts.
Outsourcing takes the pressure off of your employees and lets them focus on their work.
7. Take Any Appropriate Action Necessary
Once you have taken all the steps asked in your handbook, it is time for a verdict. You may also ask the help of a lawyer if the incident broke any laws. Necessary punishment might get included in the handbook already, such as suspensions.
Some punishments also include firing an employee and even taking legal action. Always report to the necessary authorities when dealing with claims of stalking or threats of violence. Some actions also warrant lesser punishments.
Some harassment claims can arise due to a misunderstanding. For instance, an invitation to lunch might have been interpreted as an invite for a date instead. This might result in a warning.
Employees might raise their voices at their peers or say a remark that didn’t sit right with the other person. Another employee might be prone to stress or anger, affecting the workplace. These things might warrant mandating counseling for the employee.
In the case of high-ranking employees, you will need to hold a meeting. For instance, if a complaint is against the owner or CEO, you might need to talk to a board. This can be a board of trustees or investors with voting power in decision-making.
Handle Workplace Harassment Claims Better Today
Now you know what to do if you receive a workplace harassment complaint. Always prioritize the safety of your employees. Follow these steps, and you are sure to take the right steps in investigating these claims.
Want to learn more about cultivating a safe working environment for you and your employees? Check out our other blog posts to discover more.