10 steps you should take when an employee complains of harassment

Nov 13, 2023 | Business Principles

When an employee say they feel they have been harassed, the way it’s handled by management can significantly impact the individuals involved, the team’s morale, and the organisation’s reputation. Complainants are often feeling vulnerable and concerned about implications, so it’s crucial to address these complaints with sensitivity, thoroughness, and objectivity.

Here are 10 key steps managers should take:

1. Listen attentively

Give the individual your full attention, ensuring they feel heard. It’s likely to have been very difficult for them to raise such a difficult subject and they may worry about what they say not being taken seriously.

Avoid interrupting or making judgments. It’s essential to gather all the facts before drawing any conclusions.

2. Document everything

Take detailed notes of the complaint, including dates, times, locations, involved parties, and the nature of the alleged harassment. It may be difficult for the employee to recall specifics or to express the detail with clarity and concision so be patient and don’t rush them.

3. Offer support

Let your team member know about resources available, such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), counselling, or other support services you may have.

They may be very concerned about any come back on them for making the complaint, so reiterate that any retaliation for reporting harassment is unacceptable and that they are protected from such action.

4. Consult HR

If you have internal HR, notify them, and if not, consider seeking assistance from your external consultant if you have one. Either internal or external HR will provide guidance on the next steps, keeping in line with company policy and legal requirements.

5. Initiate a prompt investigation

The complaint needs to be properly investigated by someone competent, either from within the company or an external party.

Ensure that the investigation is timely, thorough, and respects the rights and privacy of all parties involved.

6. Maintain confidentiality

Information related to the complaint should be shared only with those who need to know. Reiterate the importance of confidentiality to all parties involved in the investigation.

It is entirely possible the individual making the complaint would rather not be identified. This is unlikely to be practical, however you can reassure the individual that details will be kept to a minimum and that they will be protected from any negative reaction.

7. Implement interim measures

Depending on the severity of the allegations, consider interim measures such as modifying work schedules, temporary reassignments, or placing the alleged harasser on paid leave.

This ensures safety and reduces potential tensions while the investigation is ongoing. It may also help reassure victims who are reluctant to take action or allow details of their complaint to be looking into.

8. Conclude and act

Once the investigation is complete, review the findings. If the complaint is substantiated, you will need to move to a disciplinary hearing for the perpetrator. Outcomes might include formal warnings or even dismissal depending on the seriousness of the incident or incidents.

Communicate the outcome to the complainant and the accused, while respecting privacy considerations.

9. Monitor the situation

Stay vigilant and monitor the work environment to ensure there’s no retaliation or residual tension. It may be that redeployment is appropriate or necessary, if this is an option in your organisation.

Engage with both parties periodically to ensure the situation has been resolved satisfactorily.

10. Review and learn

Reflect on the situation to determine if there are any preventive measures or policy updates required to avoid similar incidents in the future. It may be that your policy wasn’t quite adequate (or perhaps you don’t have one!), or that you or another manager could or should have seen the problem arising sooner and could have done something to prevent escalation.

You may need to consider additional training or awareness sessions for your team. These sessions often prompt eye-rolling from staff but actually they are important and can prevent issues in the future.

Managing a harassment complaint is a delicate and critical responsibility. Addressing complaints with promptness, fairness, and empathy not only supports a positive work environment but also reinforces trust and confidence in leadership.

If you need any further advice on dealing with complaints regarding harassment, do get in touch.