How to Handle Sexual Harassment Complaints in the Workplace

September 21, 2022


The mountain of sexual harassment cases continues to grow. From technology to media to government, and more – offices across the world continue to be plagued with these complaints. 

Cases of sexual harassment can be catastrophic for a company’s reputation. When a company fails to act promptly against a complaint, the result is an unsafe workplace and the loss of valuable talent. 

The action a company takes when a sexual harassment report hits the table decides how effectively it can dodge the ensuing liability. More importantly, when a company takes quick action against a harassment complaint, the employees know that their safety is the company’s top priority. 

This article uncovers valuable steps you can take in responding to a sexual harassment complaint

Craft a Clear Policy to Address the Situation

As with so much in the world of E&C and HR, the solution begins with a policy. Because any report of sexual harassment triggers a lengthy (and expensive) series of events, what if you can stop the harassment from unfolding in the first place? This is where the need for a strong policy comes in. A formal sexual harassment policy should clearly lay out that any acts of sexual harassment will not be tolerated and every related complaint will be thoroughly investigated. Here’s what the policy can include:

  • A clear statement prohibiting sexual harassment. 
  • Examples of the type of conduct that would be considered as sexual harassment. 
  • The steps an employee can take to report sexual harassment.
  • A sexual harassment complaint form.
  • A statement that ensures an employee will not face retaliation if they file a complaint 
  • A clear picture of the investigative procedure that will begin after a complaint has been filed.
  • The possible disciplinary actions that will be taken against the accused. 

Train the Employees and Managers

After crafting a clear and formal sexual harassment policy, the next step would be to ensure both your employees and managers understand and abide by it. Conduct training sessions at least once a year to help employees understand what sexual harassment is and how they can report any sexual harassment issue they face or witness without any fear of retaliation. Run separate training sessions for supervisors and managers to educate them about sexual harassment, the investigative procedures following a complaint, and how they should deal with any sexual harassment complaints. 

Take Everything Seriously

Cases of sexual harassment can be particularly challenging to handle. Formal or informal – every harassment report demands immediate attention. Make sure you take every charge seriously, tell the complaining party that you will look into the matter immediately, and assure them that coming forward with the complaint won’t lead to retaliation. 

Ensure Confidentiality 

When an issue of sexual harassment is at the table, confidentiality is the single greatest factor to consider. Facing sexual harassment can be a traumatic experience for an employee and reporting it can be equally challenging. Stress the confidentiality of the matter when dealing with the complaint and assure the complaining party that you have taken all the necessary steps to protect them from retaliation. 

Take Steps to Prevent Retaliation

Among thousands of charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “retaliated” topped the list amounting to a whopping 55.8% of the charges.

While confidentiality is critical when dealing with sexual harassment cases, it is equally critical to wipe out all the possibilities of retaliation. Explain to the accuser that they are protected by law from retaliation. Unfortunately, retaliation is not easy to detect or tackle. This is why it’s important for employers to consistently follow up with any employee who files a complaint. Lastly, an applicant will open up only when they know they are fully protected and no harm will be done to them or their career if they report sexual harassment. 

Run a Prompt Investigation 

Regardless of whether a sexual harassment charge appears true or false, it is critical to investigate the complaint promptly. When ignored, this complaint can explode into an expensive liability. A few basic steps to take for an investigation include:

  • Laying out the scope of the investigation
  • Interviewing the employee who reports sexual harassment
  • Interviewing the accused employee
  • Interviewing other witnesses (if any)
  • Reviewing relevant communications such as emails, memos, and more
  • Determining the appropriate action
  • Documenting everything

The best practice to investigate these complaints is by having a trained and experienced investigator on board. This is because a professional investigator has the experience to view the situation from a neutral vantage point and offer a fair judgment based on evidence alone. 

Appoint the Right Interviewer 

The interviewer you choose can make or break the entire investigation. When it comes to cases of sexual harassment, make sure you choose an interviewer who has the experience and training to carry out a neutral and fair judgment and possesses good people skills. If you don’t have a qualified professional from within the organization, hire a third party to get the job done efficiently. 

Consider Outside Counsel 

You can consult with an attorney to ensure you’re handling the complaint fairly and based on the evidence you’re equipped with. Since an outside investigator does not work with or otherwise knows the subject, they are best equipped to carry out an objective investigation. 

To Conclude 

Each time a sexual harassment complaint surfaces on the company’s shore, it becomes the ethical, moral, and legal obligation of the employer to run an immediate investigation. A comprehensive policy is often the best roadmap to investigating any harassment case. 

Aside from running an effective investigation, it is critical to protect the subject from any form of retaliation. While you can carry out the investigation on your own, hiring an experienced professional is often the best way to tackle the situation. An experienced investigator is equipped with the right knowledge of laws surrounding sexual harassment, knows exactly the kind of questions to ask both the accuser and the accused, and offers a neutral, evidence-based judgment. 

If you’re looking for any assistance related to sexual harassment complaints, you can trust Ethico to bring about a swift and valuable resolution.