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Q&A: We received a complaint about harassment. How should we respond?

Question:

We received a complaint about harassment. How should we respond?

Answer from Aimee, GPHR, SHRM-SCP:

When a company suspects that an employee has violated its harassment or discrimination policy, we always recommend conducting a complete (and well-documented) investigation into the allegations. This includes speaking with the employee who made the complaint, the accused employee, and any witnesses they name.

The investigation generally includes a series of interviews conducted by an impartial manager, company officer, or Human Resources representative. This individual should approach the investigation process without a presumption of guilt or innocence and with the commitment to treat the situation as fairly as possible. It’s also helpful to have another manager or HR Representative present during the interviews to serve as a third-party witness and to take detailed notes.

The questions asked during the interview should not “lead” a witness toward a particular response and should not be accusatory in nature. They should be unbiased and open-ended. Formulating them in advance is a best practice. It’s also important not to promise a particular outcome to employees participating in the investigation.

Once the investigation interviews are complete, we recommend internally documenting your conclusions and actions taken. Should management determine that the accused employee did in fact violate the company’s harassment or other workplace policy, we recommend taking the appropriate disciplinary measures, which depending on the severity of behavior may include termination of employment. A memo summarizing the findings should be placed in the accused employee’s file.

It is then important to inform both the accused employee and the accuser about the conclusions of the investigation and any disciplinary measures taken. The complaining employee doesn’t need to know the specific disciplinary action, just that appropriate corrective action has been taken.

If the results of the investigation do not warrant terminating the accused employee, we recommend corrective measures such as a written warning and additional training on your harassment policy. It’s also important that you notify both employees about your anti-retaliation policy. In some situations, it is advisable to separate the two employees to limit the potential for future incidents, but care should be taken so this step doesn’t have a negative impact on the employee who raised the complaint.

Companies that do not make changes substantial enough to eliminate harassment once they become aware of it face greater liability in the event of future issues. A company can help reduce risk related to harassment complaints by conducting a quick, thorough, fair and well-documented investigation followed by steps to minimize the risk of such behavior happening in the future.

In addition to the above guidelines, it’s often prudent to consult with your legal counsel upon receipt of any allegations of harassment or discrimination.

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Aimee is a recognized leader in the field of Human Resources. Aimee was previously the Global Director for the Board of Directors of the local chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management. Previously, she was the HR Director and Global HR and Organizational Effectiveness Adviser for an international humanitarian relief and development organization and worked as an HR consultant to small and mid-sized companies.

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