How should an employer or manager handle a harassment complaint?
As an employer or manager, there is nothing more unsettling than an employee presenting a harassment complaint to you, be it a formal written complaint or verbally informing you of the complaint. Regardless of how complaints are presented, or the employees desire to advance the complaint, organizations have a responsibility to address complaints. As a leader, there are steps you can take to approach and deal with the alleged harassment, which will resolve it effectively and thoroughly.
At Kn/a HR, our team of experienced HR professionals understand the complexity of dealing with an investigation into a harassment complaint. We also know how to navigate that in a confidential and professional manner, leading to a resolution for all parties involved.
Kn/a HR’s Dawn Hillrud outlined the 6 steps an employer or manager should take when handling a harassment complaint here:
1. Act Confidentially and With Attention to Detail
Initially and throughout the entire investigation, handle all information related to the complaint as confidentially as possible. Depending on the steps post complaint (HR investigation, litigation, etc.), you will be required to release details on an as-needed basis. As such, ensure that you maintain a high level of detail and documentation in all of the steps you take while dealing with the allegation. This will ensure clarity as things move ahead and will ease the job of investigators if one takes place.
2. Ensure Those Involved are Safe
An important early step is to determine if it is safe for the worker who has made the complaint (the complainant) to remain in the workplace or department they are currently in. If possible, move the complainant to a department that does not require contact with the alleged harasser (the respondent) or, if needed, have the complainant take a paid leave.
3. Facilitate a Conversation
If it is safe and productive to do so, facilitate a conversation between the complainant and the respondent.
In the conversation, have the complainant share with their alleged harasser what behaviour triggered the complaint. It is possible that the respondent is not aware that their actions were offensive and/or fall under the definition of harassment. If made aware, they may change their behaviour. If possible, through conversation, get a commitment from both parties on how they will move ahead as productive co-workers, free of harassment. If the conversation goes well, you may have resolved the issue, and you may not have to move ahead with an HR investigation.
Ask the complainant and respondent if they are comfortable continuing in the workplace and in their roles without an investigation. If they are, closely monitor the situation to ensure the relationship moves ahead productively and free of harassment.
If it is not safe to have a conversation between the complainant and respondent, or if either the complainant or respondent are not comfortable in having a conversation, it is time to move to consider an HR investigation. This is a service provided by the experienced team of experts at Kn/a HR. The team at Kn/a HR can conduct a confidential third-party HR investigation to provide a professional and objective process, in a clear, transparent, and open manner.
If facilitating conversation fails, or if it is not an option. An HR investigation must occur. As you move to an investigation, if you do not already have one, get a detailed written complaint from the complainant. Request, as a part of this complaint, specific details of the alleged harassment including:
- supporting documentation
Decide whether or not to investigate internally or hire an external investigator.
If you have the internal professional capacity to conduct an investigation and if you have internal experts available to methodically and effectively seek an understanding of the incidents in question while remaining objective, an internal investigation may be a good option for you. If you move ahead with an internal investigation, make sure your internal investigator(s) does not have a real or perceived bias or conflict of interest with either the complainant or respondent. Conducting internal investigations can be a sound solution; however, there may be times when an external investigation is the best option.
An external investigation may be the best option when:
- reducing the risk of bias and having no conflict of interest is a priority
- there is any real or perceived relationship between those involved in the complaint (witnesses included)
- there are reporting or personal relationships between those involved and your investigation team; or
- the complaint is complex or covers a long time period
An external workplace investigation specialist will:
- have the tools to methodically and extensively handle the investigation
- be unbiased and not influenced by preconceived ideas of the parties involved
- be dedicated to and focused on completing the investigation
As investigators (internal or external) sort through the details of the complaint, they will require your cooperation. They may need you to:
- provide contact information of potential witnesses
- gather evidential documents and materials
- support interviewees, while maintaining confidentiality, as they come to you with questions or concerns about their interviews
6. Follow Up
Once the investigation is complete, it is your responsibility to ensure proper follow up occurs. If harassment occurred, you must decide appropriate actions to:
- ensure harassment does not occur again
- deal with the respondent
- repair the relationship between the harasser and the complainant or make changes in the workplace to ensure they can move ahead productively
- restore the workplace to a state of normalcy
If harassment did not occur, action is still required. Some of which mirror what you would do if harassment occurred. You must:
- support the complainant in understanding why the behaviour does not fall under the definition of harassment
- repair the relationship between the complainant and respondent to ensure they can move ahead productively
- restore the workplace to a state of normalcy
As an employer or manager, you have a responsibility to respond promptly to all allegations of harassment in the workplace. This blog provides you with steps to take to deal with harassment situations and you can read more on our HR investigations page, where we also have an FAQ section outlining some of the most commonly asked questions about this process.
If you remain uncertain, please call Dawn, Nicole, or Leah at 1.844.842.4949, and we will help guide you through the steps.