Sexual harassment investigations can be embarrassing for everyone, including the alleged victim. But in order to conduct a fair and impartial investigation, HR must know exactly what happened. You don’t want to get part of the story, only to find out later that there was more.
Instead, ask the employee whether her account is complete and includes all the events, comments or behavior he or she found offensive. If there’s obvious embarrassment, allow the employee to write down the details. Then, have the employee sign the account. This way, there won’t be a later claim that knew about more serious behavior and ignored it.
Recent case: Elaine Webb-Edwards worked as a deputy sheriff. When a new sergeant transferred in, he began making comments that Webb-Edwards found offensive and sexually harassing. For example, he suggested she wear tighter clothing and sometimes told her she looked “hot.” She would later tell investigators that his comments were made at least once per week and sometimes twice a day.
However, Webb-Edwards didn’t complain until she was in a patrol car with the sergeant and she received a cell phone call from her husband. Before she could speak, the sergeant yelled out that he was performing a sex act on Webb-Edwards. Then she complained but didn’t mention the outburst—just the tight clothing and “hot” comments.
Based on her complaint, management suggested the sergeant had supervision problems he needed to correct.
But shortly after, Webb-Edwards’ husband (he also worked for the department) called to complain about the suggestive outburst. Management then suggested that Webb-Edwards transfer so she would have a different supervisor.
Webb-Edwards sued, alleging sexual harassment. The trial court said she had unreasonably failed to take advantage of her employer’s corrective measures.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reinstate the lawsuit. It concluded that nothing she complained of rose to the level of harassment. Plus, she hadn’t been completely candid, which would have allowed her employer to take definitive action sooner. (Webb-Edwards v. Orange County Sheriff’s Office, No. 07-12599, 11th Cir., 2008)
- Sometimes, you have to trust a jury to make the right decision
- Send the right vibe in that voice mail
- Company itself may be liable when CEO is the harasser
- Require everyone to report harassment—you'll be justified firing those who don't
- Your best defense against failure-to-hire suits: Sound hiring process, complete documentation