Many managers have received training about their company’s harassment policy and the company’s obligations under the law if an employee complains of illegal harassment. It is important that managers take seriously any such allegations and help the company get the information it needs to conduct a timely and thorough investigation. Once an investigation is conducted, the company will need to design the response to fit the circumstances. And even if illegal conduct is not found, the conduct may be inappropriate nonetheless. In that case, the company also will want to respond.
What you do as a manager if an employee comes forward with a harassment complaint is very important. Making time to talk to the employee immediately, explaining the company’s harassment policy, taking thorough notes of what the employee says, and getting the complaint to human resources for an investigation are just some of the things that managers need to do. But just as important are some of things that managers should not do when an employee comes forward.
Here are some tips on what to avoid during and after an initial conversation with an employee who is raising a harassment complaint:
- Don’t wait to have the conversation — make the time immediately. The employee may not come back later if you put it off.
- Don’t promise the employee that the complaint will be kept confidential. That’s not possible because an investigation will have to be conducted. You can explain that the information will be shared only on a “need to know” basis but you can’t promise absolute confidentiality.
- Don’t interrupt the employee while he or she is speaking. Let them engage in a narrative so that you are learning the information from the employee’s perspective.
- Don’t wait to write down what the employee says. It is ideal to write it down while the employee is speaking but if that’s not possible, don’t wait longer than one or two hours to commit the conversation to writing.
- Don’t editorialize or characterize what the employee said. Write down the words the employee used and the words that you used.
- Don’t ask questions that imply you are judging the employee.
- Don’t try to offer explanations for the conduct the employee is complaining about. It may feel natural to do that, particularly if the employee is upset and you are trying to calm him or her down, or if you know the person the employee is complaining about and think that the employee simply misunderstood the conduct. If you try to explain the conduct or defend the alleged wrongdoer, even in a logical way, you can be perceived as being dismissive of the complaint or worse, you could be accused of calling the employee a liar. Your explanations could be characterized as minimizing the seriousness of the complaint, and that could impact the employee’s willingness to cooperate in an investigation or, if litigation is filed later, the jury may think that your explanations show that you and the company did not care.
- Don’t forget to give the employee a copy of the company’s harassment policy and explain how the complaint process works.
- Don’t forget to invite the employee to contact you or HR if he or she thinks they are being subjected to retaliation during or after the investigation.
- Don’t promise the employee a particular result. Let the employee know that the company needs to investigate and until it is finished, it’s not possible to know what will happen.
- If the employee asks for or demands a transfer while the investigation is pending, don’t promise to transfer him or her. It may or may not be necessary. Also, it may or may not be perceived as retaliation. Talk to HR before taking any step like that.
- Don’t give advice to the employee.
- Other than human resources, don’t talk to anyone else about the allegations. And definitely do not tell the person who is being accused. If you do, you could undermine an effective investigation, and doing so will be used against you if litigation is filed later.
- Don’t ignore others’ conduct in the workplace during or after the investigation — if they are treating the employee differently, either with regard to his or her work or on a personal level, your failure to address the conduct could be viewed as retaliation by the company. Check with HR before taking action but don’t ignore it.
Your actions when you are approached by an employee with harassment allegations are critical to maintaining your credibility and that of your company. If something inappropriate is going on, your company has an interest in stopping the behavior in its tracks. That will benefit the employee, you, and the rest of the workforce. Work with HR to understand your harassment policy and what the company expects of you. And make sure that your employees understand the policy too.
Be a model of professional behavior in the workplace so that if others are engaging in inappropriate behavior, you are perceived as someone who can be approached for help. It may not be comfortable for you to have a conversation with an employee about possible harassment, but it’s imperative that you know how to react.
For additional information, be sure to also read Manager’s Guide to Receiving Harassment Allegations: What to Do.
Barrie Gross is former Vice President and Senior Corporate Counsel (Employment Law) for an international Fortune 1000 company and is a regular contributor to AllBusiness.com. She is the founder of Barrie Gross Consulting, a human resources training and consulting firm dedicated to assisting companies to manage and develop their human capital. Visit www.barriegrossconsulting.com to learn more about Barrie and the services BGC provides.
Note: The information here does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you have a legal issue or wish to obtain legal advice, you should consult an attorney in your area concerning your particular situation and facts. Nothing presented on this site or in this article establishes or should be construed as establishing an attorney-client or confidential relationship between you and Barrie Gross. This article is provided only as general information, which may or may not reflect the most current legal developments or be complete.