Common Mistakes Regarding Sexual Harassment Complaints
1. Failing to take every complaint seriously.
Supervisors who dismiss complaints by comments such as, “Oh, come on,” “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything,” or who fail to ask questions that would confirm or deny the allegation are forcing employees to look elsewhere for help.
Every complaint should be treated seriously, even if it is from someone viewed as a chronic complainer.
2. Not taking action unless a formal complaint is received.
For various reasons, employees often do not report problems to management. The employer may hear of problems through the informal lines of communication, or a supervisor may witness inappropriate behavior.
Employers should take action whenever they are put on notice of a problem, even though it may not be the kind of formal notice or complaint that they might wish to have to make things “official.”
3. Reaching hasty conclusions or allowing prejudices to affect decisions.
Instead of objectively investigating the complaint and focusing on facts, supervisors sometimes assess the personality of the complainant or the accused and, based upon subjective judgment, act or fail to act.
4. Focusing on the alleged harasser’s intent instead of his or her behavior.
Managers will sometimes read into the behavior the causes and motives of the behavior and the harasser’s intention, rather than focusing on the behavior itself and its affect on the victim. What the person did is more important than why.
5. Discouraging informal resolution of sexual harassment situations by thoughtless questioning of the complaining employee.
Judgmental questions such as, “Why did you put up with it for so long?” implies that the employee bringing the complaint has done something wrong.
While it is important to get all the details, do not badger the complainant with unnecessary or repeat questions. The best way to receive complaints is to let the employee explain it in his or her own words. If the person has trouble doing this or if you need more details, ask the complainant to be more specific.
6. Overreacting or taking inappropriate action.
Many employers have gone to great lengths to demonstrate their intolerance for sexual harassment.
Before disciplining an employee, conduct a fair, impartial, thorough and effective investigation of the charges. Do not discipline without an investigation supported by facts.
If the situation is tense or the conduct in question is egregious, or if the investigation cannot be conducted in a fair and open manner, it may be necessary to separate the parties. Note, however, that any job transfer must not disadvantage either the complainant or the alleged harasser. Generally, make reassignment offers dependent upon the approval of the employee involved. It might also be necessary to place the accused on leave (preferably with pay) until the investigation has been completed.
7. Not understanding confidentiality requirements.
Maintaining confidentiality to the maximum extent possible is important, but do not go to the length of denying the accused the information he needs to understand the complaint against him and respond accordingly.
Tell the alleged harasser the complaint in sufficiently specific detail. Do not promise absolute confidentiality to the complainant.
8. Not following company procedure regarding complaints.
Sexual harassment involves an organizational response to an organizational problem. It is not smart to launch an investigation or to take disciplinary action without talking with Human Resources, legal counsel, or upper management.
9. Not bringing closure to the complaint and to the complainant.
Among the biggest complaints of employees is that they never learn of the resolution of the complaint: what the investigation showed, whether disciplinary action was taken, and what steps will be taken to avoid future problems.
While management should be sensitive to privacy concerns of the alleged harasser and need not provide specific details of any disciplinary action, management should inform the complainant when the investigation has been completed and a general statement of the result.
Without closure, employees will feel frustrated and could be compelled to take their complaints outside the company.
10. Not protecting complainants against retaliation.
Watch for signs of retaliation in changes in job circumstances.
Remind the accused that the law makes it illegal to retaliate against someone who brings a good faith complaint or who participates in an investigation.
11. Not making the company’s sexual harassment policy known.
Even the most carefully drawn policy will be useless if it is not known to employees and supervisors.
Managers and employees must all be fully aware of what the policy says and where they should go in the event that they encounter a problem.
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