Recently, we have seen a significant number of workplace sexual harassment allegations and legal claims in the media. Many of these allegations have been ignored for years, if not decades. As organizational leaders, we have an obligation to take harassment claims of any nature seriously and address these claims proactively. Investigating sexual harassment allegations, bullying, retaliation, etc. and addressing these issues is never easy, but it is necessary.
Below is a summary of my 5 thoughts on sexual harassment investigations:
- Take it Seriously: As recent news has shown us that ignoring a problem and/or covering it up isn’t a solution to any employee relations issues or sexual harassment claim. Employees should feel comfortable discussing these allegations with a supervisor, manager, business owner or the human resources department and have the confidence that the system will not fail them. Make time to listen and address any concerns that are brought to your attention. The worst thing we can do is ignore it or that make statements, that we are too busy to listen and proactively deal with the situation.
- Ensure Confidentiality: Organizations must protect the confidentiality of employee claims to the best of its ability. Within protecting confidentiality, we must also conduct a prompt and proactive investigation. Explain to the party putting forth the allegations and all individuals involved in the investigation process, that all information gathered will remain confidential, to the extent possible for an effective investigation. However, organizations cannot guarantee absolute confidentiality to any party involved in the investigation.
- Provide Interim Protection: “Separating the alleged victim from the accused may be necessary to guard against continued harassment or retaliation. Actions such as a schedule change, transfer or leave of absence may be necessary; however, complaints should not be involuntarily transferred or burdened. These types of actions could appear to be retaliatory and result in a retaliation claim. The employer and the accuser must work together to arrive at an amenable solution.”[i] Reinforce policies and communicate proactively with the party that has put forth the allegations.
- The Investigator: The appropriate investigator is necessary to ensure credibility of the investigation. Investigators must have the ability to investigate objectively without bias and remain neutral. The investigator should have no stakes in the outcome. There should be no personal relationships with either party involved in the situation. Investigators need investigation skills that include; previous investigatory experience and working knowledge of labor and employment laws. They must be able to build rapport with the parties involved, have attention to detail (notes, questions, fact-finding and summarizing) and the right temperament to conduct the interviews. Investigating allegations is not easy. Patience, efficiency and fluid communication is necessary to be effective.
- Investigation Closure: Ensure that thorough notes are documented throughout the process, interviews are closed out and the investigation ends. Loop closing communication is necessary to ensure investigations are effective and impactful. Leaving the alleging party with no closure can lead to additional issues. This does not mean communicating discipline, training and/or termination impacts.
Throughout my career, I have conducted many workplace investigations, including; harassment, bullying, retaliation, workplace violence, threats and sexual harassment. Investigations are never easy, but they are necessary. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. If you are unsure on investigating or recognize that an internal investigation will not be effective and impactful, bring in a third party to assist the organization throughout the process and seek the necessary guidance to protect your workforce and your organization.