Reacting to harassment complaint: First-Day Action Is Vital

If you don’t have an action plan in place for responding to sexual harassment complaints, develop one now. Don’t wait until the phone rings or an e-mail arrives detailing sexual wrongdoing. By then, it may be too late.

It’s not enough to simply publish a sexual harassment policy; you and your supervisors need to know exactly what to do on that first day.

Train your supervisors so that responding becomes automatic at the first hint of trouble. Best bet: Establish a checklist of actions that include:

  • Recording the allegation details immediately. (Getting the complaint in writing is desirable, but many complainants will balk. So, accept all complaints, including oral ones.)
  • Log complaints: date, time and origin.
  • Follow up with a written confirmation, a copy of the company harassment policy and a note on what the employee should expect next.

Also, immediately separate the alleged harasser and the employee bringing the complaint.

Recent case: When Tuskegee University hired Patricia Arnold, she received a copy of its sexual harassment policy. It clearly stated employees should report harassment in writing to the HR director.

Five months later, Arnold’s new boss propositioned her. They had sex on two occasions. Months later, she told HR that she had submitted to the sex under duress and that her boss threatened to fire her if she refused.

The following day, HR called in her boss. He admitted having sex with her twice. Then Arnold filed a written complaint and HR immediately transferred her to another supervisor. She never had any trouble with her old boss again, but the university eventually fired her for calling her new supervisor a “liar’ and refusing to apologize.

Arnold sued, alleging sexual harassment. The 11th Circuit ruled against her. It said Tuskegee wasn’t liable since it had a clear written policy and acted promptly when it learned what had happened. In addition, the court pointed out that Arnold didn’t complain right away and had no logical reason not to do so. (Arnold v. Tuskegee University, No. 06-11156, 11th Cir., 2006)