Managers who stick their heads in the sand when an employee complains about harassment can be equally as dangerous to the organization’s legal health as the manager who actually engages in harassment.
Managers are responsible for stopping harassing behavior about which they know or should have known. This means that they can’t wait for an employee to file a complaint with them. These steps should be taken in response to a harassment situation.
Step 1: Set the tone. Reassure the employee that he or she was correct to come forward with the charge. Get details of the complaint down on paper, review the company’s anti-harassment/discrimination policies and next steps in the investigation process with the employee, and highlight the anti-retaliation provision.
Step 2: Get HR involved.
Step 3: Separate the two parties so that no further incidents occur.
Step 4: Question the accuser, the accused and witnesses, and look for corroborative evidence. To do that, follow these tips.
- Analyze the employee’s story for sufficient detail, internal consistency, and believability.
- Listen to the accused’s side of the story. Do not attach much significance to a general denial. Look at his or her explanation for supporting details, consistency, and believability, as well.
- Interview potential witnesses to the alleged event(s); obtain testimony from individuals who observed the accuser’s demeanor immediately after the alleged incident(s); and question those with whom the employee may have discussed the incident.
- Ask other workers if they noticed changes in the employee’s behavior at work or in the accused’s treatment of the employee.
Step 5: Keep an eye out for retaliation by the accused, the accuser or co-workers.
Step 6: Take actions to ensure the complaint is resolved. The situation may not be black and white, where the accused deserves to be fired, for example. If the situation lands in the gray area of the accuser being genuinely offended, but not illegally harassed, you still need to act. Explain to the accuser that your findings don’t justify disciplining the accused, but also warn the accused not to engage in further inappropriate behavior.