Investigating Workplace Sexual Harassment Allegations

Sexual harassment occurs all too frequently in the workplace. Many recent sexual harassment allegations that have been made have been directed at top level executives.

Posted by Joe Gerard in Harassment, Human Resources on August 25th, 2010

Sexual harassment occurs all too frequently in the workplace. Many recent sexual harassment allegations that have been made have been directed at top level executives. As investigators, you understand the value of maintaining compliance, confidentiality and promptness when investigating incidents of sexual harassment.

HR departments or investigative teams must respond to the issue immediately to avoid potential lawsuits and a tarnished organizational reputation.
Regardless of the employee’s level in the organization, each investigation must be handled with objectivity, follow company policies and reprimand those found guilty of policy violations. Previously, we blogged about a number of sexual harassment related topics, including developing anti-sexual harassment policies, tips for preventing and detecting sexual harassment, as well as the different forms of sexual harassment against males and females in the workplace. This post will focus on addressing sexual harassment complaints and investigations into sexual harassment allegations, to ensure company policies are enforced and violators face appropriate consequences.

Handling Sexual Harassment Allegations

I came across an article in Macleans Magazine written by Anne Kingston, titled “What a Season of Sexual Harassment Suits Says About the Modern Office.” In the article, the author brings up examples from what she calls the “ongoing parade” of workplace sexual harassment claims, including recent lawsuits at HP, Novartis and Penguin Publishing in Canada. The article states:

“Of all the accusations lobbed in the workplace these days, sexual harassment remains the most fraught—and attention-grabbing. It also appears to be pandemic.

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The realities of the modern workplace complicate the matter. Lines can blur—and excuses can be made—in offices that are more casual than ever before, from dress codes to collegial relationships. Social and professional lives have become so entwined that people talk of their ‘office husband’ or ‘office wife.'”

All excuses aside, when a sexual harassment allegation is received, HR departments or investigative teams must respond to the issue immediately to avoid potential lawsuits and a tarnished organizational reputation. Since it can be difficult for employees- male or female, to come forward with sexual harassment claims, provide them with a variety of sources for making complaints. In some workplaces, making a complaint directly to a supervisor may be comfortable for the employee and the claim can be made face-to-face. However, other methods, such as hotlines and intake forms on a company’s website or intranet may be a preferred method for those fearing retaliation or who are uncomfortable with the idea of approaching a supervisor.

A simple solution for managing incoming allegations and ensuring each case is assigned to an investigator is to invest in a case management or investigation system. Case management systems send automatic alerts to investigative managers or HR executives when a new case is entered into the system. Managers can manually or automatically assign cases to members of the investigative team for further review and investigation. The selected investigator will receive an e-mail, notifying them to accept ownership of the case that has been assigned to them. Once the investigator accepts ownership of the case, their manager will be sent a notification, which signals to them that the case is being dealt with.

Workplace Sexual Harassment Investigations

Sexual harassment investigations deal with very sensitive issues and must be taken seriously by any organization. One of the most important things to remember when investigating sexual harassment allegations is to maintain confidentiality to the highest degree possible and monitor for retaliation during and after the investigation. We have put together a checklist for investigators to ensure nothing is left out when conducting sexual harassment investigations.

Investigation Preparation: Before conducting investigation interviews, make sure to gather all of the facts related to the reported incident. Get the complainant to document, in writing, the events that took place and get them to include times, dates and any witnesses present. This helps prepare questions for the interview stage. If there’s any evidence- e-mails, video or audio footage, make sure it is collected right away so that it doesn’t get destroyed before it is reviewed. Determine what to do with the subject (the accused). If the complainant and the accused work in close proximity or one reports to the other, it may be best to temporarily move the subject to another area or suspend them, with pay, until a conclusion is made. Before starting the interviews, plan out where each one will occur. The workplace may not be the best place for certain interviews, therefore, select a place that’s comfortable for the interviewee. If they feel comfortable, they are more willing to divulge information, which impacts the quality of the investigation. Offsite interviews also assist in maintaining the confidentiality of those involved in the investigation. Be sure to take notes and document each step of the investigation.

Interview the Complainant: When interviewing the complainant, explain to them that confidentiality will be upheld to the greatest level possible, but in some instances, information will need to be shared with third parties in the case of a criminal act or lawsuit. Tell the complainant that the company has a zero tolerance for retaliation and should they feel they are being retaliated against, to report the issue to them immediately. Ask background questions to ease them into the investigation before moving to case specific ones. Find out the effect the sexual harassment has had on the complainant- has it impacted their ability to complete work related tasks? Increased stress levels? Depression?

Interview the Subject: Avoid jumping to conclusions and assuming the subject is guilty when interviewing them. Let the subject speak and tell their side of the story. At the beginning of the interview, state the reason for the interview, address the issue of confidentiality, review the company’s anti-retaliation policy and inform the subject that a decision has yet to be determined regarding the case.

Interview Witnesses: Be sure to interview any witnesses, as they help overcome “he said, she said” situations. Assess the credibility of each person interviewed. Determine if there are any motivating factors influencing anyone’s opinions or recollection of events. Depending on the type of alleged sexual harassment, witnesses may be difficult to find.

Investigation Conclusion and Report of Findings: Once all of the facts have been gathered and investigation interviews have been conducted, investigators must prepare a report of findings based on the investigation and take corrective action. When determining the consequences for the subject- if found guilty, it’s beneficial to know if this is the first time a complaint has been made about them. i-Sight allows cases to be linked together and can help investigators identify repeat offenders. It’s also important to distinguish between voluntary and unwelcome sexual acts, as each one has different implications on the outcome of the investigation.


Joe Gerard
Joe Gerard

CEO, i-Sight

Spend my days showing off the i-Sight investigative case management software and finding ways to help clients improve their investigations. Usually working with corporate security, HR & employee relations, compliance and legal teams.

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