How to Investigate Sexual Harassment Allegations

Make sure you have the knowledge and training you need before any complaints surface.

The general manager of a Massachusetts car dealership testified at trial that he “honestly didn’t believe” a finance manager when she told him that her supervisor often commented on her anatomy, tried to throw coins down her blouse and suggested they sleep together so he could see her breasts.

The finance manager, who was fired after making complaints, ultimately was awarded $200,000 in punitive damages because her employer failed to properly investigate her allegations. That’s on top of $40,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress.

In ruling that punitive damages were warranted, the state’s high court issued a scathing review of the company’s handling of the woman’s grievances. In fact, it reads like a primer on what not to do in sexual harassment inquiries.

“The investigation was marred from the beginning” because of the general manager’s bias against the accuser, according to the court. The general manager and the HR manager at Lexus of Watertown Inc. claimed to have conducted separate investigations but couldn’t produce any notes. And the court found it particularly concerning that they couldn’t find anything to support the woman’s allegations, even though many of the incidents she reported were supported by other employees at trial.

The case is just one example of how a poorly conducted investigation can harm an organization’s bottom line as well as its long-term reputation.

In the recent flood of sexual harassment allegations involving high-profile individuals in various industries, HR professionals have been criticized for being unwilling or unable to investigate such complaints. They’ve been accused of protecting their organizations, or at least the powerful individuals at their helms, at the expense of the harassed workers.

Whether that’s true or not, there is clearly often the perception that HR is not working for employees, which needs to be addressed.

One way HR professionals can shift that view is to make sure they get the knowledge and training they need to conduct prompt, objective and thorough investigations—before a complaint comes in.

In fact, some HR leaders are asking experts to guide them through mock investigations to give them more practice, while others are requesting workplace climate assessments in an effort to uncover problems earlier. No one wants to wake up one morning and find their company in the news.

Mounting Concern

Almost two-thirds of Americans, or 64 percent, say sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem, up from 47 percent in 2011, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Thirty percent of women surveyed have experienced unwanted sexual advances from male co-workers, and 23 percent said they were harassed by men who had influence over their jobs. Of those who reported being subjected to harassment at work, one-third said they were sexually abused. Only 42 percent of the women reported the inappropriate behavior to a supervisor, and 95 percent said the men went unpunished.

While some suggest HR must choose sides—the employer or the employee—many practitioners don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive.

We believe HR’s role is to protect the organization. But that being said, especially in sexual harassment situations … the best way that HR can protect the company is to make sure they find out what’s going on and remove any people from the workforce who are doing this. So, protecting the employees is really protecting the company.

The Challenge

While workplace investigations in general are considered one of the toughest parts of an HR professional’s duties, investigating sexual harassment complaints can be particularly challenging.

It’s an embarrassing subject for folks, which is why we often don’t hear about it for decades. In most situations, it’s not about sex, it’s about an abuse of power.

So, it’s very difficult for someone new to a job or in a low-level position to report harassment. It’s not just that they’re afraid of coming to HR. They’re afraid of the consequences. What happens if I lose my job? What happens if I’m identified as a troublemaker? What happens if I lose my job and they give me a bad reference?

Frequently, the employee who is being harassed just wants the offensive behavior to stop. That’s why it’s important to be sensitive to the individual’s turmoil, explaining that, “We don’t want you to be subjected to this. We have to look into this.” Then determine whether it’s necessary to take steps to protect the individual’s physical safety and to block any retaliation.

All sexual harassment allegations should be investigated, although some inquiries will be more extensive than others. If you write anybody off, you could later be accused of not taking their complaints seriously.

Likewise, a superficial or sloppy investigation will send the message to employees “that the organization doesn’t care, that the organization thinks I’m lying, that they’re protecting a person of power.” And an employee who might have been upset and sad before could turn angry. Mad means money in court.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It also can include offensive remarks about a person’s gender.

Both the victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex. The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a manager in another area, a co-worker or someone who is not an employee, such as a client or customer.

Sexual harassment is considered illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment or adversely affects the victim’s job, such as being fired or demoted. Would a reasonable person find the conduct offensive? That’s the standard used by the courts and the EEOC.

Make a Plan

One of the biggest mistakes HR makes is failing to create an investigative plan before diving into interviews.

The first step is to determine the scope of the investigation. What is the main question the investigator wants to answer?

Having a plan will help guide the investigator through the various steps.

Other questions to address in the plan include:

  • Who will investigate?
  • What evidence needs to be collected?
  • Who will be interviewed?

To protect the credibility of the process, you may want to bring in an outside investigator. That’s a good idea, for example, when the person accused is a high-level executive or if those on the HR team lack the experience and training to conduct such an inquiry themselves.

Choosing an objective third party not only provides a stronger defense for the employer if a case ever goes to court, it can also make it easier for business leaders to make the right decision, even if it means terminating someone who is a strong financial asset.

If the person who is accused of harassment has any control over HR, then it [HR] is not a neutral, objective investigator.

Stay Neutral

From the beginning, the investigator should maintain a neutral, objective demeanor.

It’s important not to label the parties as ‘victim’ and ‘harasser,’ as that creates the appearance—and a very real possibility—of a predetermined resolution. If you go into this thinking this person is a victim, there’s a very good possibility that your investigatory questions are going to be swayed and not be as objective as needed to make a decision.

Some basic steps for every investigation include the following:

Prepare interview questions in advanceCollect needed details from the person making the allegation—the who, what, when and where. You might also ask “Were there witnesses? Did others know you were upset by this? Did you talk to family members or friends?”

Try to ask open-ended questions to ensure that you have a full picture of events.

Resist the urge to fill silent moments. Staying quiet can be helpful when you’re trying to get someone to open up.

Gather evidence that might support or negate the complaintThis might include voice mails, text messages, e-mails, photos, timecards, business expense records and social media posts. For example, electronic messages might show that a male supervisor made inappropriate sexual comments to a female subordinate. On the flip side, if workers need a key card to enter the worksite, building access records might show that the person accused likely wasn’t in the building at the time of the alleged incident.

Check past performance evaluations and prior complaints. Consider whether the person making the allegation might be seeking retribution for a poor evaluation.

Also evaluate any past complaints against the person being accused. Contact former employees, particularly the individual who previously held the accuser’s job or anyone in the same department who left suddenly without explanation, to find out if they also had problems with the accused employee.

Even if there are no prior complaints, you might detect a pattern of questionable behavior. Sometimes the problem escalates over time.

Document every stepTake careful notes throughout the interviews. Record who wasn’t available and why. Some HR professionals even ask interviewees to sign off on the written summaries of their statements. Be aware that any written evidence might well end up being scrutinized in court.

Encourage confidentialityAsk those you’ve interviewed to keep the conversations confidential. But don’t mandate it. The National Labor Relations Board has said employers can’t prohibit employees from discussing working conditions, including workplace investigations. Instead, encourage them to help you with the investigation by not discussing it with others.

That goes for the HR team as well. A sexual harassment investigation can’t be treated as juicy gossip, drama or a soap opera. It can have such a long-lasting effect on the company and people’s careers.

Make a Decision

Ultimately, you’ll need to decide whether a company policy was violated or inappropriate conduct occurred and recommend a course of action to the decision-maker.

Don’t just regurgitate what the witnesses told you. That’s not the role of an investigator. Weigh the evidence. Can you corroborate details of each person’s version? Does either person have a reason to lie? The EEOC offers guidelines for determining credibility.

While EEOC guidelines recommend that investigators examine witnesses’ demeanors, researchers have found that it’s actually a poor way to spot deception. Investigators primarily look for nervousness. However, a person may be nervous or fidgety even when telling the truth.

Inexperienced investigators may find it difficult to reach a decision because they don’t understand that they’re not running a criminal case where the standard for evidence is beyond a reasonable doubt. Here, the standard is preponderance of the evidence. In other words, is it more likely than not that the incident occurred?

Write a Report

While the EEOC recommends a “prompt” investigation when harassment claims are made, that doesn’t mean you should speed through it.

If the allegations are supported, the employer should take immediate and appropriate corrective action, which could range from a written reprimand to termination of employment depending on the severity and frequency of the misconduct, experts say. Make sure high-level employees are given the same treatment as low-level employees for similar conduct.

The EEOC recommends that the written report document the investigation process, findings, recommendations and any disciplinary action imposed, as well as any corrective and preventive action.

After you’ve submitted the written report to the decision-maker and determined the appropriate disciplinary action (if any), follow up with both parties. Tell the person who filed the complaint that appropriate action was taken, even if you can’t share the details for privacy reasons.

Check back with that employee regularly to ensure that no further harassment has occurred and that there has been no retaliation, which could trigger additional liability.

That follow-up shows the person who made the complaint that HR took it seriously. In many highly publicized recent cases, the alleged sexual harassment and abuse reportedly had been an open secret for years. After one person came forward, the floodgates opened.

Measuring Credibility 

When there are conflicting versions of events in harassment cases, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggests using the following factors to assess the credibility of all involved individuals:

PlausibilityIs the individual’s version of the facts believable? Are there inconsistencies?

DemeanorDoes the individual seem to be telling the truth? This can be tricky. Contrary to popular belief, a liar might look you in the eye, while someone telling the truth could avert their gaze. Instead of being fidgety, liars are more likely to be rigid.

MotiveDoes the individual have a reason to lie?

CorroborationAre there documents or other witnesses that support the individual’s version of events?

Past recordDo any of the individuals have a prior history of inappropriate conduct or false statements?

Should there ever be any reason to conduct a sexual harassment investigation, our team stands ready to assist in any way we can.

Joe Boone, MBA, SPHR, is the founder and president of Strategic HR Solutions, LLC, a human resources consulting firm that provides small businesses with a wide range of virtual and onsite HR solutions to meet their immediate and long-term needs. From ensuring legal compliance to writing customized employee handbooks to conducting sexual harassment training, businesses depend on our expertise and cost-effective human resources services to help them thrive.

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