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Employees who believe they have been sexually harassed may initially make only vague complaints about conduct that makes them uncomfortable. Then HR professionals have to decide what course to take. Should you launch a full-scale investigation? Or should you take the complaint at face value and ignore it?

Here’s a case in which the employer took the aggressive approach. It interviewed employees and gave them an extensive questionnaire designed to get to the bottom of a complaint against a supervisor.

Recent case: Regina Edmond worked as a probation officer. She informed management that her supervisor had called her into his office for “callous and infantile” reasons.

The parole agency interviewed the supervisor’s other subordinates and asked them 50 specific questions about his conduct in an effort to determine what, if anything, was going on. None of the subordinates provided any specific examples of sexually charged conduct.

Later, Edmond sued, alleging sexual harassment. She said that the behavior that bothered her consisted of the supervisor spreading his legs apart as he talked to her and moving his hips up and down. She took that as a sexual gesture. Edmond said he also used a suggestive tone when he told her, “I have heard about you.”

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Edmond had not effectively alerted anyone to the possibility that she was being sexually harassed. Plus, the interviewed employees didn’t raise harassment concerns either. Therefore, the court concluded, Edmond hadn’t actually made a sexual harassment complaint and couldn’t later argue that her employer knew or should have known she was being harassed. (Edmond, et al., v. Department of Probation and Parole, No. 09-5105, 6th Cir., 2010)

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