Sexual Harassment – Addressing Policy and Complaints

A Step-By-Step Approach

Add bookmark

sexual harassment addressing policy and complaints_close-up of a chinese checkers board

Just about every company today, faces the problem of sexual harassment in their work place. To effectively combat Sexual Harassment, one of the first steps has to be addressing policy.  What follows is a step-by-step approach to addressing policy.


Sexual Harassment Policy

Legal Perspective

First, meet with the company’s legal counsel.  Along with them, work to update (if needed) the company’s policy.  It should clearly state what constitutes as sexual harassment and outline the more serious offences.  Some might include:

  • physical touching
  • bantering
  • third party harassment
  • gesturing
  • creating a hostile work environment
  • verbal abuse
  • making false accusations

The policy should also outline that all incidents will be thoroughly investigated by HR and or the proper authorities.  Any proven sexual harassment will be dealt with accordingly. 

No Retaliation Policy

An important note here:  a no retaliation policy should be put into place if one does not already exist.  A copy of it should be provided to the accuser, accused, their managers, and appropriate leadership at the company.  The policy should also include a list of actions that would be considered retaliatory in nature.  Examples include:

  • not allowing the employee to attend meetings or company functions
  • removing him or her from accounts
  • telling coworkers about the situation

In addition, the policy should outline the consequences should retaliation occur.

Discipline, Costs, and Social Media

While a company is reviewing its current policy regarding sexual harassment, a review of its formal complaint filing, investigation and disciplinary procedures should also occur.

Finally, management needs to understand the real cost of dealing with a case of sexual harassment.  HR should present information regarding the company’s expense that can be directly tied to the investigations, settlements and/or litigation of such harassment matters over the last two years, broken down by individual groups, divisions, business units or other appropriate organizations.

It’s also important for top management to recognize that, with the rise in the use of social media by employees, a company's negative reputation for not dealing effectively and/or fairly with any sexual harassment claim can seriously degrade a company's culture in just a very short period of time.

Once the review process is complete, the policy should be given to employees at all levels and reviewed.  This should happen on an annual basis.  It helps to reinforce the expected behavior but also to reinforce the commitment of Human Resources and the company in preventing sexual harassment.

Addressing Complaints

When an employee comes to HR with a sexual harassment complaint, it has to be investigated.  There is simply no way around it.  HR has both a legal and ethical obligation to investigate the claim thoroughly.

A Note on Confidentiality

When approached by an employee concerning a potential sexual harassment claim, one of the most common requests is that the information be given with strict confidence.  Confidentiality is not something HR can always promise, and in most cases, employees don’t understand why.

As an HR professional, be prepared to promise confidentiality to a point where the information crosses legal boundaries.  Some issues have to be investigated as a matter of law whether the employee wants to purse the allegations or not.  Sexual harassment falls into this particular category. 

NOTE:  When it comes to legal thresholds concerning the reporting of sexual harassment or other transgressions, HR must review state law with legal counsel.  Laws vary by state.  Special attention should also be given when a company spans different states or countries.

Processing the complaint

As previously mentioned, the policy created under Section 2 of this guide will have been distributed to all employees.  It will have included different ways an employee can file a formal complaint.

HR is the first, best option, but there are other avenues:

  • managers/supervisors
  • CEO
  • President
  • Company owner.

It’s important to note all avenues exist as it is conceivable the sexual harassment complaint will be against one of the individuals listed.  Further more, it should be codified that if any of these avenues are made aware of a sexual harassment situation, it must report it to HR.  A company can face legal action if it is learned a manager received a complaint and failed to report it.

Once the complaint is received, it should be assigned to an HR professional to oversee.  This is really up to the discretion of the HR department.  In some instances, there will be a sole individual or team that will lead the investigation.  This person or team should be someone with a firm understanding of the company’s policies.

RELATED:  To read how VR can be used in sexual harassment training, click here.

This individual or team will then map out the investigation from beginning to end.  It will include a list of the people that should be interviewed and situations that should be investigated.

The first person to interview should be the alleged victim.  The person should be informed that they are safe from retaliation and should be reassured they did the right thing by reporting the claim.  Should there be any retaliation or should the harassment continue, the employee should be told to report it immediately.

During the interview process, the HR professional should take notes that include relevant data such as:

  • Dates
  • Times
  • Situations
  • Witnesses
  • And other relevant information

Following this, the alleged harasser should be informed that a complaint has been filed and that any act of retaliation will not be tolerated.  Next, the accused needs to be interviewed.  Remember, the accused also deserves an investigation that is fair and just.

Potential witnesses should be interviewed in the same fashion.

Once the investigation is complete, the information gained should be thoroughly reviewed and a decision rendered.  The HR professional or team should be free to consult with other HR professionals on the matter.  It would also be prudent to review the decision with legal counsel.  Make sure the attorney supports the decision before making it known.

If sexual harassment occurred, using the disciplinary procedures devised from Section 2 take the appropriate action.  The severity of the punishment will, of course, depend on the severity of the claim.

If sexual harassment did not occur, it may be prudent to make some minor changes to avoid future claims.

From here, HR should focus on making sure new claims do not surface.  Follow-up meetings should be held with both parties.  Remember, it is important to treat each side with dignity and respect.

In Summation

HR professionals want a workplace that is harassment-free.  Sexual harassment can disrupt a company.  It can shock the work environment, outrage employees, and cost the company hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. 

That’s why these steps are important.  They fill in a perceived knowledge gap where the overall issues are concerned.  When these steps are taken, sexual harassment incidents will be greatly reduced and employees will be much happier knowing their company and leaders have taken some meaningful preventative actions to end the vicious cycle of sexual harassment in the workplace. 

To learn more about how to deal with sexual harassment from an HR prospective, download our resource:  A Guide for HR and Sexual Harassment here.


Image courtesy:  Stock Photo Secrets