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Responding to Reports of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a serious issue for all organizations. It demeans and humiliates the targets, lowers workplace morale and reduces productivity as employees spend energy worrying about the latest offense rather than furthering the business. It can also inspire employee lawsuits, bad publicity for the organization, and criminal charges. Even the best of organizations may face incidents of sexual harassment at some point. If it happens, how the organization responds is of the utmost importance.

The organization must take every report of harassment seriously. Brushing off a worker complaint as frivolous could be the basis for future legal action. The person receiving the complaint must judge it by two standards. First, would a reasonable person be offended by the alleged conduct? Second, did the person making the complaint actually take offense at the alleged conduct? If the answer to both questions is yes, the organization should conduct a more in-depth investigation.

Harassment complaints fall into three general categories. In full-fledged complaints, the complainer firmly believes she has been harassed, wants it stopped, and is willing to provide details as to what happened. “For your information” complaints involve employees who don’t necessarily want the employer to do anything, and are unwilling to provide details. Anonymous complaints may provide great detail or none, may be legitimate or complete fiction, and may or may not be from employees. Regardless of the type of complaint, the organization should take it seriously and investigate thoroughly.

Once it has determined that harassment occurred, the nature of the organization’s response depends on the seriousness of the offense. Less serious offenses include jokes, teasing, off-color comments, cartoons and photos, and profanity. The offender may not have intended harm toward anyone. Unless he has habitually done these things despite warnings, a reprimand may be in order. More serious are uninvited and unwelcome physical contacts (hugs, kisses, pats on the butt, etc.), acts directed at a particular person or group of people (repeated comments about a woman’s clothing), and intentionally harmful actions or words (insults about a person’s sexual preference.) Some may require disciplinary action at the first offense (touching a woman’s breast), while others may deserve a reprimand unless repeated (insults).

The most serious offenses involve deliberate physical, mean-spirited and possibly criminal acts. Grabbing, forcible kissing, lewd exposure and attempted rape are all examples of this kind of conduct. These may warrant immediate disciplinary action and may require involvement from law enforcement officials.

The organization should assign the investigator based on the seriousness of the alleged offense. A supervisor may be sufficient for less serious offenses like e-mailed jokes or suggestive calendars. Acts like sexual insults, unwelcome advances and demands for sexual favors call for the involvement of upper management. The most serious offenses may require hiring an outside investigator or attorney; alleged criminal conduct will necessitate getting the police involved. In addition, the worker making the complaint may prefer speaking to someone of the same sex, of a certain age, or who shares the worker’s background. Organizations may want to have a group of people prepared to investigate claims so they can deal with such requests. However, all investigators must remain objective and free from bias toward either party.

A response appropriate to the situation is vital to an organization’s reputation, future employee relations, and vulnerability to lawsuits. The organization’s advance preparation will make this easier and may make it more attractive to insurance companies that provide employment practices liability insurance. Ultimately, the seriousness with which an organization treats the possibility of sexual harassment may discourage it from happening in the first place.