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As soon as an employee comes to you and says, "I'm being harassed," you need to address that allegation immediately. It may be that no harassment has actually taken place, but it's your job to launch a prompt, thorough investigation to find out.
According to Julie A. Moore, Esq., president and founder of Employment Practices Group, managers often downplay harassment complaints brought by employees, hoping that the situation will improve on its own. But that never happens - and, in fact, ignoring the problem will only make it worse.
A plan for immediate and effective communication provides the best chance to mitigate workplace distress and avoid employment litigation, Moore says. Managers must be trained to inform HR immediately whenever a harassment allegation arises.
"You've been accused of sexual harassment, and the company has to investigate."
Susan, a twenty-something administrative assistant, has been with your company for almost two years. She approaches you in tears and complains that Michael, a department manager who has been with the company for almost a decade, has been harassing her with ongoing remarks about her looks. She also accuses him of insinuating that if she really wants to get ahead in the company, she should go out with him.
You need to talk with Michael and let him know that a complaint has been filed about his behavior, and that the situation is going to require an investigation.
Your first step is to gather and organize your notes from your meeting with Susan, and obtain any other information relating to the complaint, Moore says. Contact Michael to schedule an appointment for a face-to-face meeting, and let him know that a complaint has been filed regarding his behavior.
Before the appointment, you will want to review the company's policy on sexual harassment and a have a copy with you during your meeting with Michael. See if any procedure exists as to conducting internal investigations.
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Your discussion with Michael needs to be direct, straightforward, and non-judgmental, Moore says. At this point, consider that you have two potential victims — Susan and Michael.
You'll explain to him that the company is obligated to investigate any allegations that implicate the sexual harassment policy and, at this point, you are gathering information toward assessing the validity and severity of the complaint.
After describing the behaviors that Susan believes create a hostile working environment, give Michael an opportunity to describe his version of the events, and elicit any information that would rebut Susan's version. Since this is an information-gathering session, you are collecting data rather than answering specific questions.
At this point in the meeting, you will want to articulate the company's policy, mentioning that the investigation is necessary to protect all parties. Its purpose is to either validate the complaint or to determine that there is insufficient reason to proceed further.
In terms of Michael's behavior, he needs to be told to stop immediately the behaviors that Susan has described, if in fact the allegations are true. Harassment is about the victim's perception, not the perpetrator's intent.
If the investigation reveals that the complaint has merit, Michael needs to know that this could lead to the termination of his employment. In terms of clear communication, your obligation is to ensure that Michael is fully aware that, should this result in a lawsuit, both he and the company could be named and potentially legally liable.
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What you don't say: You don't express any opinions on what or whom you believe, nor do you provide answers to any questions that are not addressed in the company's written policy. Avoid any discussion about other cases or similar situations. This applies to body language and facial expression, as well as your spoken words.
If Michael has questions that fall outside of the policy, write them down and encourage him to give serious thought to the allegations. If questions occur to him later, he should write those down and send them to you. He should leave this meeting with the perception that it was an exchange of information. Let him know that he will be apprised of the next steps in the process, and then document the meeting in detail for your files.
In tomorrow's CED: Moore's specific dos and don'ts for harassment investigations, plus an introduction to a valuable sexual harassment training tool designed specifically for California employers
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