However, the problem is even more wide-spread than it seems. The EEOC estimates that around 75 per cent of people who are harassed at work never report it.
Workplace harassment investigations must be confidential, timely and approached in a sensitive manner. When conducted correctly, they will not only protect the victim from further harm, but also reduce the risk of lowered performance organization-wide and reputation damage.
Download our free eBook to learn how case management software can help you conduct better workplace harassment investigations.
Before the Workplace Harassment Investigation
Rushing into any type of investigation without preparation is unwise, but workplace harassment investigations require even more care. Take these steps before you formally begin the investigation to set it up for success.
Harassment of any kind (sexual, physical, verbal, etc.) causes stress for the victim, but they may still be hesitant to come forward. That’s why you must take every allegation seriously.
Be sensitive, compassionate and reassuring when you meet with the complainant and the alleged harasser. Don’t judge or take sides.
Download this cheat sheet to learn the signs of 11 types of harassment.
Employers are obligated to keep their employees safe in the workplace. To protect the complainant as well as the confidentiality of the investigation, take interim steps.
Offer counselling to help the victim recover from the harassment. Change work stations or hours so the complainant and the alleged harasser don’t cross paths. Alternatively, send the accused on paid temporary leave until the investigation is over. Avoid changing the complainant’s work situation unless they request or consent to it.
One key to a successful workplace harassment investigation is choosing the right investigator. An internal investigator is cost-effective and gives you control over the investigation. On the other hand, an external investigator may have specialized expertise and more real and perceived objectivity.
According to CEO and Founder of Artisan Consulting Group Xan Raskin, “workplace investigators need to be objective, have experience in conducting investigations, be familiar with the relevant policies and practices, have the time available and have effective interviewing skills.”
An investigation plan lays the groundwork for an organized, timely workplace harassment investigation. Set deadlines, determine who to interview and in what order and list documents to review. This ensures you won’t miss any important steps and puts parties and team members on the same page.
During the Workplace Harassment Investigation
“Workplace harassment . . . comes at a steep cost to those who suffer it,” notes the EEOC. But it also “affects all workers, and its true cost includes decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm.” Decreased performance can mean a hit to your bottom line, so a prompt and well-executed workplace harassment investigation is well worth the resources you put into it.
“Regardless of whether the employer believes the complaint is without merit or comes from a party who has made numerous complaints in the past, each complaint must be properly investigated in a fair, thorough, impartial and timely manner,” says workplace investigator Peter Matukas.
Dedicate an appropriate amount of time, money, effort and attention to every workplace harassment investigation. Investigate with care and speed as if the allegation were true without assuming that it is.
During a workplace harassment investigation, it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep things confidential. Revealing investigation details could harm the reputation of the accused, the complainant or even the organization.
You shouldn’t disclose case information except when it is required to:
- protect employees
- investigate the allegation
- take corrective action
- abide by a law or regulation
Workplace harassment investigations often end up being a “he said, she said” situation. For this reason, document all evidence you collect, including direct quotes from interviewees. Documenting well can protect you from reputation damage or legal claims if a party doesn’t like the outcome.
An easy way to keep track of all of your notes, evidence and documents is to use case management software for your workplace harassment investigations. A case management solution offers a secure platform with all the case data in one place, streamlining the investigation for a faster resolution. Saving time during the investigation means a safer workplace for all employees.
Check out our free cheat sheet for warning signs of workplace harassment and tips on how to prevent it.
Investigators must remain objective throughout the course of the investigation. No matter what information comes to light, analyze and report just the facts. Don’t be swayed by your personal opinions or biases (e.g. believing a senior employee over a new hire).
By nature, workplace harassment investigations often have less “hard” evidence to study. Because of this, Raskin says, “an investigator has to be creative in order to truly get to the bottom of what happened.” In interviews, “truly wanting to understand what happened and being a good listener tends to make people comfortable and gets them to talk.”
Focus on asking open-ended questions, building rapport and recording direct quotes from interviewees. These tactics will help you gather the information you need to reach a conclusion.
Once you’ve gathered evidence through document review and interviews, you need to analyze it all to determine if a policy has been violated. However, a good investigator knows you can’t take every piece of evidence at face value.
Assess the credibility of the interviewees. Do their accounts corroborate or contradict the other evidence you’ve collected? Does the person have motive to lie about details? Have they accused someone/been accused of similar behavior in the past?
While you want to resolve a workplace harassment as quickly as possible to mitigate risk, don’t rush it. You may cause even more damage to the victim, the alleged harasser or the organization by reaching the wrong conclusion. No matter how much pressure you feel to make a decision, don’t end the investigation until you feel comfortable with the amount of evidence you’ve collected to back up your findings.
After the Workplace Harassment Investigation
After you’ve concluded whether or not a policy was violated, it’s time to communicate the results to those involved. However, a quick email that says “Bob violated XY Company’s harassment policy” isn’t enough.
Organize the information you’ve gathered into a professional investigation report to share with the organization’s decision-makers (such as HR or management). Include:
- a description of the allegation
- chronology of events
- the complainant’s and accused person’s names
- documents reviewed (including copies)
- list of interviewees with dates of interviews
- interview notes
- credibility assessment
- recommendations for corrective actions (if applicable)
Remember to include objective facts, not inferences or opinions, in the report.
Not sure what an investigation report should look like? Download our free investigation report template for help.
Communicate the results to both the complainant and the accused harasser. Meet with them privately to discuss the conclusion and what it means for them. Continue to keep the details of the investigation confidential, where possible, to protect the privacy of those involved.
Take (or suggest) preventive action steps to avoid more harassment incidents. Review anti-harassment policies and update them if needed. Schedule refresher harassment and discrimination training for employees.
Finally, set up an anonymous hotline with multiple reporting avenues. An easy-to-use, private method for reporting workplace harassment may encourage more employees to come forward. This gives the organization an opportunity to remedy internal issues and reassures workers that their employer cares about their well-being.