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The HR office is often the first stop an employee makes before filing a lawsuit alleging supervisor harassment. Whether the claim is about sexual, racial, disability or any other form of harassment, employees can be counted on to bring their concerns to HR—if the company has a well-publicized complaint process.

How you handle the initial complaint can mean the difference between stopping a problem before it gets out of hand and losing a lawsuit.

First, get all the facts. Who said and did what? Was a supervisor involved? Exactly what was said or done? Get it down for the record.

If the alleged harassment seems mild—there were no racial epithets, no outrageous sexual comments—you may have to tell the employee that what he experienced, though unpleasant, wasn’t harassment. But don’t stop there. You should also tell the perpetrator to stop the behavior even if it isn’t technically illegal.

Then follow up with the employee who complained to make sure there is no retaliation.

If you follow these simple steps, chances are a court won’t side with the employee, but will view the isolated incident as unfortunate but not pervasive enough to justify a big verdict.

Recent case: Kenneth Wills, who is black, lost his job at the U.S. Postal Service because of alleged poor performance. He sued, claiming racial harassment and told the court that on one day, one of his supervisors was “hostile” to him.

The court said that wasn’t enough to make a winning lawsuit, especially since the supposed hostility wasn’t tied to his race in any obvious way. (Wills v. Postmaster, No. 08-12234, 11th Cir., 2008)

Final note: This situation could have easily spun out of control. While one comment won’t be treated as harassment unless it’s outrageous, a series of comments may provide the basis for a lawsuit.

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