An employee harassment complaint is one of the most difficult issues you as a manager must know how to resolve.
One of your primary duties as a manager is to provide a safe work environment for your employees, which means reducing and eliminating all forms of harassment.
As the video below points out, “It’s your job as a manager to know what to do when an employee reports a harassment claim.”
In this post, we’ll help you understand exactly what you need to do to resolve an employee harassment complaint.
First, go ahead and watch the video below for a few quick tips.
Then, continue reading because we’ll give you the precise legal definition for harassment and show you how to handle an employee harassment complaint tactfully and effectively and how to prevent it altogether.
What is a Legally Legitimate Employee Harassment Complaint?
When it comes to harassment at work, you should know the precise legal definition for harassment so that you know what it is when it happens.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Harassment is:
“Unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”
But that’s not what makes harassment illegal. Petty slights, annoyances, or mild isolated incidents aren’t illegal. What makes harassment illegal or unlawful is when:
“Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”
Here’s a list of offensive conduct that could create an intimidating, hostile, or abusive workplace:
- Offensive jokes
- Epithets or name calling
- Physical assaults or threats
- Ridicule or mockery
- Insults or put-downs
- Offensive objects or pictures
- Interference with work performance
If you receive an employee harassment complaint that meets these requirements, there are specific actions you should take immediately that we outline below.
How Should Managers Handle Employee Harassment Complaints?
When dealing with employee harassment complaints, you should aim to be methodical and detailed to avoid any legal repercussions and so you can effectively resolve the conflict and achieve justice for the potential victim(s).
With that in mind, here some of the things you need to do after receiving an employee harassment complaint:
Take the Complaint Seriously but Impartially
You should accept an employee harassment complaint as potentially true without passing judgment on whether it is true or not.
Your job is to assist in finding the truth, which means you have to remain objective until the investigation into the complaint has been concluded and sufficient evidence has been collected that proves or disproves the harassment complaint.
Treat the Person Who Reported the Complaint with Respect
As the video in our intro pointed out, “It’s not easy for an employee to come forward about harassment. It’s embarrassing and demeaning.”
Your job as a manager in this situation is to treat the complainant with respect and kindness. You should exhibit honest empathy and offer genuine comfort.
Delivering a harassment complaint and enduring the ensuing investigation into the complaint can leave an employee feeling vulnerable and afraid, which can lead to poor performance at work.
Ensure that the complainant feels comfortable with you, and do whatever you can to make them feel as comfortable as possible while at work.
Always Investigate the Complaint
If an employee harassment complaint matches the guidelines set forth by the EEOC then it must be investigated – even if the complainant insists on not pursuing an investigation, or the complaint was delivered to you informally.
If you don’t investigate the complaint, you could face legal repercussions if more complaints are filed later and law enforcement discovers you didn’t investigate the situation after the first complaint.
Even worse, you could allow a bully or predator to continue harassing more employees when you had a chance to stop him or her.
Keep The Harassment Complaint as Confidential as Possible
An employee harassment complaint can quickly polarize your office. Some workers will side with the complainant while others will side with the accused – creating unnecessary tension, conflict, and gossip.
Worse yet, if details regarding the complaint are leaked, damaging the reputation of the complainant or accused, you could be sued for defamation and liable for damages.
Follow Established Procedures
If your office has a handbook, it likely has procedures for handling a harassment complaint. It’s best to follow those procedures exactly as they’re laid out to avoid mistreating the complainant and to avoid taking illegal or negligent actions during an investigation.
If you don’t have a handbook that deals specifically with employee harassment, then consider creating one.
Never Investigate a Harassment Complaint on Your Own
You should never investigate an employee harassment complaint on your own. The first thing you should do after listening to an employee harassment complaint is to contact HR.
All investigations and proceedings should be led by an HR professional, an internal affairs officer, an outside manager trained in conducting internal investigations, or a law enforcement official.
Write Everything Down
It’s critical that you record every interaction with the complainant and accused harasser, along with anyone else you interview or interact with as part of the harassment investigation. Include dates, names, and documents in your notes.
Keeping a meticulous journal of the proceedings will protect you in case a complainant accuses you of malfeasance in an investigation, retaliation after an investigation, or that you ignored a complaint and never conducted an investigation at all.
Take Appropriate Action Against the Harasser
After you conclude the investigation with the help of HR and anyone else, decide if the accused harasser is guilty. If he is guilty, then discipline him accordingly.
You may need to terminate him if his actions were especially dangerous or egregious, such as stalking or threatening the complainant.
If the harasser wasn’t violent, but was mean or ignorant, as in the case of excessive office pranks or insensitive jokes, then counseling or a leave of absence may be appropriate.
Whatever you decide to do with the harasser do it quickly, document it, and encourage the rest of your employees to speak out when they see harassment.
Don’t Retaliate Against the Complainant
This should be obvious to you, but it is illegal to punish someone for complaining about harassment, even if the claim is unfounded and dismissed after a proper investigation.
This means you can’t do any of the following as a result of an employee harassment complaint:
- Terminate a complainant
- Discipline them
- Cut their pay
- Demote them
- Change their shift or work hours
- Change their job responsibilities
- Isolate them
- Exclude them from meetings or other office functions
- Or threaten any of the above
Now, if you’re a sensible manager you wouldn’t do any of these things anyway.
However, to legally protect yourself, you should take extra precaution against performing any actions that would imply retaliation against a complainant – because again, they can sue you even if their complaint was unfounded.
How Can You Prevent Employee Harassment Complaints?
If you want to prevent employee harassment complaints you have to learn how to prevent employee harassment.
To do that, you’ll need high-quality training that can teach your employees how to spot and prevent harassment in the workplace as well as training that teaches you and the rest of management how to prevent and mitigate harassment in the workplace.
But you probably don’t have the time nor the budget to afford a lengthy seminar or speaker.
What you need is on-demand training you can watch from any device, anywhere for quick and easy learning.
Where can you find high-quality employee harassment training that you can access immediately with nothing more than an internet connection?
Right here at Enterprise Training.
Experience the proven, easy-to-use, and cost-effective benefits of online training by scheduling your free online training consultation today!