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How to Deal Sexual Harassment Claims from Your Employees

No company today can afford to ignore this issue of sexual harassment among employees, and no one with HR responsibility can afford to forget that what one person may view as a harmless joke may well be perceived by another as an aggressive and unwelcome sexual advance. Sexual harassment is one area of HR management in which you can never be too careful.

How to create a reporting process for employee sexual harassment

Employees are not required by law to report sexual harassment to their employers in order to file a sexual harassment claim with the EEOC or a court. However, it’s in your best interest that they do so — and it’s critical that your organization establish a reporting procedure for complaints of sexual harassment, generally as part of a broader anti-harassment policy.

The complaint process must be understandable. It needs to identify accessible people, hot lines, or anonymous toll-free phone numbers to which complaints can be reported (and alternative people in the event that the alleged harasser is one of the designated company representatives who would otherwise receive sexual harassment complaints). There must be assurance that the employer will protect — to the extent possible — the confidentiality of harassment complaints.

Aside from its legal significance in helping your organization defend against a claim of sexual harassment, the existence of an internal complaint procedure likely will help you to address, and hopefully resolve, alleged sexual-harassment-type issues without “help” from the government.

How to investigate employee sexual harassment claims

Regardless of how frivolous you may consider a sexual harassment complaint, you must take it seriously and investigate it in accordance with your policy. If an incident ultimately spirals into a court case, and it’s revealed in testimony that management was aware of the complaint but didn’t act on it, you may, as a result, have to pay more in damages.

Every sexual harassment complaint should be documented, and your organization must undertake a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into the alleged harassment. When management or HR learns of alleged harassment, it should decide if a detailed fact-finding investigation is needed (obviously not the case if the alleged harasser doesn’t deny the accusation) and, if so, undertake it immediately.

As part of the investigation, getting detailed statements from the person making the harassment charges, as well as from the accused and any witnesses, is paramount. Don’t view paperwork as a burden. It can be your company’s best defense. Documentation of discipline demonstrates that your company is serious about the problem and the solution.

How to address employee sexual harassment

If you determine that harassment has occurred in violation of your policy, undertake immediate and appropriate corrective action, including discipline. The type of remedial measures you take should be designed to stop the harassment, correct its effects on the employee, and ensure that the harassment doesn’t happen again. These measures don’t have to be those that the employee requests or prefers, as long as they’re effective.

Doing nothing or being too lenient can put your firm at great risk and, at the very least, create the impression that you’re condoning the behavior. This impression won’t do much to help your company recruit or retain good employees and will expose the company (and possibly individual supervisors) to monetary damages.

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