November 9, 2022
Allegations of harassment, both sexual and otherwise, are increasingly common in the media. It should come as no surprise that unpublicized harassment allegations are also increasingly common in the workplace. How are employers to address such allegations, particularly if they involve otherwise decent and productive workers? And how can employers best address these complaints “in house”, rather than through the courts, tribunals or media?
In dealing with complainants, it is imperative to fully engage your mind and your heart: Listen carefully, take good notes, and be empathetic to what the person is feeling and experiencing. Assure the complainant that you take these concerns seriously, including a thorough investigation overseen by you personally, during which time you will ensure that the alleged harasser has no contact with the complainant. Enquire about any emotional supports needed and ensure that they actually receive such support. Inform complainants that privacy is paramount - theirs, but also that of the alleged harasser.
For workers who have been accused of harassment, listen to their side of the story. Assure them that you will investigate thoroughly first, then you will render a decision. Inform them that you need to balance their rights with those of the complainant - and those of your business, whose image and productivity may be harmed by these allegations. To that end, they are to have no contact with the complainant until the investigation is complete, but otherwise they are able to work as usual. Provide assurance that their privacy (and that of the complainant) will be protected.
For more serious allegations, you are justified legally in suspending an employee with pay. Try to avoid such a strategy, since it will be interpreted as punishment before “guilt” has been established. Consider alternatives, such as requesting that the employee work from home.
Be sure to request and obtain all relevant written documents, including text messages, emails and voicemail messages, and interview the principle persons involved and any third parties with knowledge of what transpired. Recorded phone conversations may be helpful in establishing the true sentiments of the person being recorded, albeit not those of the recording party.
Upon completing your investigation, be sure to communicate your conclusions both in person and in writing. Provide ample opportunity for clarifying questions and expect disappointment on the part of one or both people involved. Enquire how both are coping emotionally, and offer and provide further support as needed. At the same time, make it clear that the complaint is now resolved and that a harmonious working environment within the workplace is of paramount importance.
At all times, never allow the polarizing nature of harassment allegations to distract you from the big picture: Reconciliation between the two employees involved, if possible, is crucial, since your business must remain your primary concern. Therefore, look for opportunities to de-escalate and calm the heightened passions. Time, wisdom and kindness are the tools you will need. Exercise them liberally.