two women having a conversation
Sexual harassment has gained a lot of traction lately in the headlines, and all employers should be prepared with how to handle a complaint from an employee. — Getty Images/courtneyk

Having a sexual harassment policy in place doesn’t necessarily mean that employers are fully prepared to handle a complaint.

In fact, employees reflected this sentiment in a 2018 Hiscox Workplace Harassment study, which found that 39% of employees do not report instances of sexual harassment because they fear that management wouldn’t properly handle the situation.

That said, having a sexual harassment policy is an important in order to create a healthy and safe work environment, but having procedures in place for management to respond to a complaint is just as crucial. [Read more on how to create a sexual harassment policy: How to Create a Sexual Harassment Policy for Your Business.]

Handling the complaint

Midge Seltzer, co-founder and executive vice president of Engage PEO recommends taking the following steps when faced with a harassment complaint:

  • Take all complaints seriously. The definition of what constitutes a formal complaint isn’t the most cut and dry. Regardless of whether a complaint is made formally or informally, it should be considered seriously.
  • Ensure pre-investigation workplace comfort. Implement any necessary changes to make sure the complaining employee (complainant) is comfortable in the workplace. “This may require you to remove the alleged harasser from the workplace during the investigation via paid leave or a transfer to another location,” Seltzer said.
  • Inform both parties of next steps. The complainant and alleged harasser must be made aware of the steps the company will take.
  • Start the investigation ASAP. As soon as practicable, an investigation should be performed thoroughly and in an unbiased manner.
  • Come to a conclusion. After all parties are interviewed and documents are reviewed, make a sound, unbiased determination based on the facts. The decision should include next steps, such as termination of the alleged harasser, mandatory training, or a determination that no harassment occurred.
  • Communicate the results to both parties. The complainant and alleged harasser should be informed of the determination. The key here, according to Seltzer, is that “The communication should be on a ‘need-to-know basis’ only, and not for general company gossip.”
  • Ensure post-investigation workplace comfort. If harassment was found to have occurred, ensure that the complainant is comfortable at work and that the rest of the workplace is free from harassment.
  • Follow up. The complainant should be spoken with at different time intervals to ensure he or she is comfortable at work and that the harassment is not continuing in any way.

Throughout each step listed above, human resources personnel should keep the CEO, or another designated executive, fully informed.

When we embrace uncomfortable conversations about sexual harassment, we can break the cycle of avoidance and silence that leaves our workplaces feeling volatile and unsafe.

Sarah Beaulieu, a sexual harassment prevention and response consultant

Hiring a professional investigator

Timothy Ford, employment law attorney with Einhorn Harris, recommends hiring an independent external investigator, preferably an attorney, to perform the harassment investigation.

“That attorney should not be general counsel or outside counsel for your company, and this person should report their results to someone who is not the subject of the investigation,” Ford said.

What to avoid

When it comes to handling sexual harassment complaints, some business owners make errors in their responses because they’re concerned with how the complaint will affect the business.

Sarah Rowell, CEO of Kantola Training Solutions, gives an example of an ineffective response to a worker’s sexual harassment claim.

“Say a member of your team tells you that she has had repeated harassing comments from one of your company’s largest clients,” said Rowell. “You then tell the employee that she shouldn’t be so sensitive—that we sometimes have to put up with how people are, particularly given how important this client is to the business.”

The expected outcome? “The behavior from the client will continue and the affected person will get the clear signal that the company does not take harassment seriously,” Rowell said.

To take it even further, “The accuser may potentially file a lawsuit that includes both the harasser and the organization for not responding to complaints. And others within your company will understand that they can get away with poor behavior, and that those who complain will not be listened to.”

Training combats nondisclosure and helps prevention

Sarah Beaulieu, a sexual harassment prevention and response consultant, insists that the training component is the most essential.

However, the Hiscox study found that 36% of businesses don’t provide anti-harassment training to their workers.

On a positive note, however, half of workers polled for the Hiscox study indicate their employers have instituted new policies pertaining to workplace harassment in the 12 months prior to being polled.

“Policies teach employees the rules of engagement at work, but they don’t provide them with the skills they need to follow the rules. That’s why it’s critical to supplement your legal policy with ongoing, skills-based training around core skills. These include uncomfortable conversations, conflict, giving and receiving feedback, and setting and respecting boundaries,” Beaulieu said.

Unfortunately, this relates back to the fear of disclosure described above. “After a lecture about the rules, employees frequently walk away from training afraid to speak about the topic and reluctant to seek help or support if they have questions about their own attitudes or behavior,” she explained. “Small businesses suffer from the same habit of avoidance when it comes conversations about behavior and boundaries at work.”

The solution? Within the safe context of a training session, talk candidly about this sensitive subject, engage in role-playing exercises, and encourage frank questions and answers.

“When we embrace uncomfortable conversations about sexual harassment,” Beaulieu said, “we can break the cycle of avoidance and silence that leaves our lives and workplaces feeling volatile and unsafe.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published March 20, 2019