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Juries punish rushed investigations; keep an open mind

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Issue: Following correct protocol when investigating harassment complaints.

Risk: Courts will slap organizations with big punitive damage awards if they ram complaints through a "kangaroo court."

Action: Approach investigations with an open mind. Don't skip any steps, and don't allow supervisors to do so, either.

As we've seen many times in Washington, the "cover-up" usually lands people in more trouble than the original crime. That's also true in workplace harassment.

For that reason, it's vital to never play favorites when investigating harassment complaints and never rush to judgment. Establish a clear-cut investigation process, and follow it to the letter each time; don't skip any steps. Make sure supervisors do the same.

Your goal is to discover the truth through an honest and thorough fact-finding mis-sion with equal weight given to each party. Courts will come down hard on organizations that try to whitewash corroborating evidence or misrepresent their findings.

Recent case: A marketing coordinator filed an internal complaint, claiming her supervisor repeatedly subjected her to sexual advances, requests for dates, in-appropriate comments and hugs.

But the company shrugged off her complaint and concluded that no sexual harassment occurred because co-workers didn't corroborate her allegations.

The problem: The company didn't conduct a full investigation. It interviewed only select witnesses and drew a premature conclusion that the supervisor simply had an "inappropriate management style."

The employee sued, and a jury awarded her $15 million in punitive damages and $100,000 in compensatory damages.

The big bombshell: Evidence showed that, in fact, some witnesses actually backed up the woman's claims, even though the company told her she was flying solo. (Nestler v. Chartwell Dining Services, No. 02-CV-1115, N.D.N.Y., 2004)

When HR pros face conflict-ing stories about alleged harassment, they can't just throw up their hands. Our free report, Investigating Harass-ment: How to Determine Credibility, offers advice on sorting through such "He-said, she-said" dilemmas. Find it at www.hrspecialist.net/harassment.

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