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Pursue harassment claims, even if complaining worker backs off

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

You know to investigate harassment complaints when they land on your desk. But what if the complaining employee shows a lack of interest in her initial complaint, or doesn't follow your company's complaint process? Should you still pursue the investigation? Most certainly, yes.

As the following case shows, you should investigate even if employees ask you not to pursue their complaints or they don't respond to your inquiries in a timely way. Your duty to other potential harassment victims requires that you do everything possible to follow through.

To encourage a victim's participation (and prove your "good faith" to the court), remind all employees annually about the company's complaint procedures, send reminders of meetings to complaining workers and document any correspondence with complaining workers.

Recent case: Rena Hardy, a custodian at a university, alleged that her supervisor sexually harassed her. The university had a clear complaint process, but Hardy had difficulty following it.

Two months after the harassment began, Hardy spoke to her supervisor's boss. When problems continued, she requested another meeting. After failing to attend that meeting and another scheduled meeting, she reported the harassment to the university's Office for Access & Equity. She was given a form to fill out but didn't submit it for two months. Then her complaint was referred to a higher-up official.

He contacted Hardy, but neither followed up and scheduled a meeting.

Hardy filed suit, claiming sexual harassment. The university argued that it took reasonable steps to prevent the harassment, and Hardy failed to follow through on her complaints. But a federal appeals court sided with Hardy.

Reason: She may have been tardy in complaints, but that doesn't equal a "complete failure" to use the complaint system.

Once she made the initial complaint, it was up to the university to follow through, which it didn't. (Hardy v. University of Illinois at Chicago, 7th Cir., 2003)

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