How to Handle Harassment Complaints
Now more than ever, knowing how to handle harassment complaints is essential. Developing and implementing a strong complaint procedure will help your organization address harassment claims properly and avoid further ones.
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As activist movements like “Me Too” and Black Lives Matter continue to gain momentum, people are standing up for their rights, including in the workplace. For organizations, treating every harassment allegation with care is crucial.
According to a Statistics Canada report, 47 per cent of workers either witnessed or experienced some sort of inappropriate sexualized or discriminatory behaviour in a work-related setting in the previous year. Twenty-five per cent of women surveyed said that they had been personally targeted with sexualized behaviours in their workplace.
Another report found that 34 per cent of respondents left their job because of unresolved harassment issues.
Harassment in the workplace affects more than just the victim. Harassment can also impact workplace culture and morale and sow a lack of trust in the leadership team, not to mention the possible litigation that can result from inaction on a harassment complaint.
Receiving allegations of harassment can be jarring. However, as the employer, the onus is on you to investigate each and every complaint. That’s why it’s important to implement a strong protocol for dealing with harassment and keep your anti-harassment policy and training up to date.
Every harassment complaint poses a major risk to your organization.
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Knowing how to handle harassment complaints properly helps everyone involved feel safer and happier. To start, make it easy for employees to submit complaints. Offer multiple avenues through which they can report harassment.
Consistency is key when it comes to handling harassment claims. That's why you need to create and implement a complaint procedure tailored to your organization's mandate, size, culture, and available resources.
Your workplace's complaint procedure should include:
- Taking every complaint seriously
- Acting upon every complaint immediately
- Developing appropriate resources to resolve complaints
- Creating a procedure to ensure a healthy work environment is maintained for complainants
- Communicating decisions and actions taken by the organization following a complaint to all affected parties
By having an investigation procedure in place for how to handle harassment complaints, you’re also creating evidence that demonstrates your organization completed a quality investigation should the complaint end up being litigated.
Make everyone in your organization aware of this mechanism. You can even create an employee training program on how to follow these procedures.
When you first receive an allegation, keep an open mind. Don't pre-judge the situation or make assumptions. Complainants may be hesitant to even make the report in the first place, and often for valid reasons.
The State of Workplace Harassment 2021 survey reported that while 53 percent of respondents said their complaint was immediately addressed in the workplace, 12 per cent reported no action was taken, and nearly 15 per cent said they weren't of any action taken.
Take every harassment complaint seriously. Treat the complainant with both respect and compassion. Don't brush off their complaint or downplay it. Showing that you're open and receptive to complaints encourages employees to come forward when they experience harassment at work.
Ensure the reporter that you will maintain confidentiality as much as possible. Many harassment victims fear retaliation from their harasser, so address this fear as you deal with the allegation.
After receiving a harassment claim, you need to make a plan on how to proceed.
Determine if you need to take any interim steps to protect the complainant. If they face immediate danger, moving their workstation or escorting them to their car at the end of the work day may be required. However, HR Magazine warns that you should "be careful not to take action inadvertently that could be detrimental to the complainant."
According to a national survey by the Canadian Labour Congress,
- 70 per cent of workers who experienced harassment and violence had to miss work because of the negative effects.
- 88 per cent of workers who experienced harassment and violence were “transferred, suspended, fired, or lost a shift” due to the harassment and violence.
- One in four who reported said that reporting made the situation worse.
In addition, consider if you will need to take any PR steps. If you think the employee may go to the press with their complaint, prepare a statement. Planning how to handle harassment complaints in the media ahead of time will save you stress later on.
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Improve your investigations and reduce resolution time by using our free employee complaint form template.
Employees often come to their managers or supervisors with complaints, as it makes them feel less vulnerable than going directly to HR. If this happens, you may feel confused about what to do.
This is why your organization should be able to answer the question: what is the first step a supervisor should take in response to a harassment complaint? When handling a harassment complaint, it is important to keep the following tips in mind.
When an employee comes to you with a harassment complaint, taking quick action is key.
Inform the reporter that you are obligated to involve HR. Whether or not the employee is in danger, immediate reporting of the allegation protects them and your organization. It also reduces the risk that the harassing behavior will continue or escalate.
You may be alarmed by what the complainant tells you. Regardless, you must stay calm and neutral when communicating about the allegation to HR or a more senior manager.
When documenting the complaint, be sure to:
- Use neutral language. Do not add any inflammatory adjectives or try to categorize the alleged harassing behavior using legal jargon.
- Attribute the description of the behavior to the complainant. For example, do not say "Mary was sexually harassed by Bob." Instead, say "Mary came to me and stated that she has been experiencing what she describes as sexual harassment from Bob."
- Stick to the facts. Do not offer any opinions or inferences based on the information the reporter has given you.
Communicating through writing (such as email) can take longer and often isn't the most effective way to report a complaint. Instead, communicate verbally with HR about the employee's allegation.
Company emails are not privileged and can be used as evidence if the complaint becomes a lawsuit. Be aware of this and make sure both HR and the complainant are too.
Once you know how to handle harassment complaints in the workplace, you can begin the harassment investigation procedure. When investigating a claim, remember to:
- Keep thorough documentation of every step of the process
- Look for opportunities to corroborate or contradict the allegation
- Maintain confidentiality of all parties as much as possible
- Stay neutral
Another thing to keep in mind is what laws or codes may apply to your specific geographic location.
For example, in the province of Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act lays out guidelines for how to handle harassment complaints. Employers are expected to launch an appropriate investigation, and it should be:
- Prompt: within 90 days unless there are extenuating circumstances.
- Objective: the investigation should be conducted by a neutral party with no stake in the outcome.
- Confidential: nothing should be disclosed unless it is required to protect the safety of workers or to complete the investigation.
- Thorough: all reasonable efforts must be made to interview all involved parties. Ask relevant questions, take detailed notes, and compile any related documentation.
According to Meric Bloch, Strategic Advisor at Winter Investigations, "your job is to both prove and disprove misconduct."
You are not actually trying to determine if harassment occurred in your workplace. Your aim is to decide if the events the complainant related to you violate your organization's anti-harassment policy. This mindset will help you to investigate harassment complaints more objectively.
As an employer, the safety and well-being of your employees are high priorities. However, you also need to protect your organization's reputation during a harassment investigation.
From the beginning of the investigation, beware of "off the record" comments. Should the complainant take their case to court, your organization could be liable. They may claim that the company knew about their complaint and ignored it, even though they asked to keep their complaint "off the record."
During a workplace investigation, there are many reasons an involved party may file a discrimination claim.
For instance, the reporter might feel discriminated against if you force them to change their work setup rather than the accused person's. They may see being moved to a new station or different work hours as a punishment for coming forward.
To avoid this, move or suspend the accused employee instead. Make it clear to the accused that these actions are not an indication of their guilt and that the investigation's outcome has not been predetermined. Failing to do so could result in the accused harasser filing a discrimination claim of their own.
Getting your workplace back to normal after a harassment claim can be difficult. Restore a respectful work environment for all employees by addressing sensitive and complex issues openly. Everyone may be on edge for a while, so be especially open to discussing topics surrounding harassment.
Before you call a harassment complaint resolved, make sure you didn't just stick a band-aid on the problem. Resolving issues the first time can help your organization avoid more harassment claims in the future. Your investigation should be thorough and include research into the accused person's background to ensure they were not harassing anyone else.
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Harassment investigations can be stressful and time-consuming as well as damaging to your company. When considering how to handle harassment complaints both now and moving forward, remember that being proactive is always a sound strategy.
Keeping employees informed about what behavior is and is not acceptable in your workplace can help reduce harassment. To do so:
- Keep your anti-harassment policy and training procedures up to date. These should be clear, concise, and specific.
- Schedule regular equality and diversity training sessions for all employees.
- Require that employees reread the anti-harassment policy each year and confirm they have done so in writing.
- Teach managers how to handle harassment complaints that employees may bring to them.
Taking these steps also shows that you are committed to preventing workplace harassment. Not only will your employees feel cared for, but you will also have a good defense in place should a complainant take legal action against your organization.
If you’re still simply reacting to harassment and other misconduct, you’re putting your organization, your employees, and your reputation at risk.
Case IQ’s powerful case management software lets you analyze historic case data so you can take preventive measures, reducing future incidents.
Case IQ is a flexible and configurable solution that can be integrated with your existing reporting systems and third-party hotlines, ensuring no reports slip through the cracks.
Learn more about how Case IQ can reduce resolution time and improve your organization’s investigations here.