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Human Resources

Responding to Harassment Claims: A Cautionary Tale

Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP
by Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP on May 11, 2022

As a manager, handling a situation of workplace harassment can be difficult. If your employee approaches you with a situation, they depend on you to protect them and resolve the issue. You may even be legally obligated to ensure these matters are handled.

Here is a situation to consider: you have a young female employee approach you about two male supervisors making lewd comments, sending sexually explicit text messages, and touching her while at work. You decide to schedule her when these supervisors are not working to limit their access to her. You call the problem solved. However, because your staff is so small, and one of the two supervisors is almost always working, this results in a reduction in her work hours.

If you took this action, you could find yourself in hot water, as one fast food restaurant found out the hard way. The restaurant had a female employee report two managers for sexually harassing her, and in response, the company reduced her hours. Whether this reduction was due to an attempt to separate her from the managers or in retaliation is unknown. Still, the outcome was an order to pay $200,000 to the employee to settle the subsequent EEOC sexual harassment and retaliation claim.

The two-year decree imposed on the company also mandated harassment prevention policies and training on Title VII’s prohibition on sexual harassment and retaliation, posting notices regarding the settlement, and periodic reporting to the EEOC of sex discrimination complaints received during the two-year timeframe.

To avoid having your company become a cautionary tale, take reports of harassment or other workplace issues seriously. When presented with these types of situations, take the following steps:

  • Promptly launch an investigation into the allegations. Meet with the complainant and have them explain the issue; take notes on their report and ensure they sign off that it accurately documents the problem. Make a list of people to interview, including witnesses and the accused. Develop a list of questions and interview each person individually, preferably with another management-level witness to the investigation.
  • Review the personnel files of everyone involved to be aware of any other prior issues.
  • Protect the confidentiality of those involved to the best of your ability. Since it may not be possible to keep all information confidential, avoid promising complete confidentiality, but that you will do so to the extent possible.
  • Collect any evidence that may exist, such as emails, texts, and video surveillance.
  • Maintain a file on the investigation process, including all interview notes, communication with all involved, written witness statements, the final report on the investigation’s findings, and any other relevant documentation. This should be kept separate from personnel files.
  • Ensure employees will not be retaliated against for reporting harassment or taking part in an investigation.
  • Based on the findings, determine the best course of action and notify the complainant and the accused. Ensure that any action taken cannot be seen as retaliatory to the complainant, such as transferring them to a less desirable position or cutting their hours.
  • Create a written final report that includes the following: summary of the incident being investigated, parties involved, factual findings (including sources), applicable employer policies, conclusions that were made, the party/parties responsible for the final determination, issues that could not be resolved (if any), and employer actions taken.

Conducting an investigation into workplace issues can be new territory or even overwhelming for some managers. Clients of FrankCrum can reach out to their HR Consultant to help them through the process. Contact us today to learn more about how FrankCrum can help you.

Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP
Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP

Cymone Carlson is a FrankAdvice Sr. Human Resources Consultant. She is a Senior Certified Professional in Human Resources (SHRM-SCP) and holds a Master’s degree from the University of Florida. Cymone has firsthand HR experience working within nonprofits, manufacturing, distribution, healthcare, hospitality, and government contracts.