Move quickly to investigate harassment, be consistent

When you get word that someone in your organization is charging workplace harassment, you must move quickly and consistently, says John Lyncheski, JD, an attorney with the firm of Cohen & Grigsby in Pittsburgh. A timely investigation will yield more truthful witness statements, partly because the employee and supervisor will not have time to tell their friends and co-workers what version of the story to believe.

A quick investigation also might keep the harassment claim from growing into serious litigation, Lyncheski says. A harassed employee might keep the matter in-house if he or she feels you have responded quickly and appropriately, with some display of concern. It also is important to be consistent with harassment investigations so any disciplinary steps can be shown to be in line with that from previous cases.

Confidentiality is important throughout the investigation, and you must treat both the complainant and the accused harasser’s stories as credible. Lyncheski suggests following these steps:

1. Confirm the name and position of the complainant.

2. Determine who allegedly harassed the complainant.

3. Determine exactly what happened and get as many facts and details as possible. Be patient and sensitive to the complainant’s discomfort in relating the incident.

4. Ask how the complainant felt and feels now.

5. Ask what action the complainant would like to see taken.

6. Have the complainant’s account reduced to writing. Make sure the complainant signs and dates it.

7. Follow up with any appropriate interviews, obtaining all relevant facts and putting them in writing, signed and dated by the interviewee.

8. Interview the accused and obtain his or her response to the allegations. Be sure to note any admissions, denials, or claims of consensual conduct by the accused.

9. Analyze the evidence. Top levels of management should meet to complete this task. Legal counsel should be consulted.

10. If the evidence indicates that sexual harassment has occurred, take appropriate disciplinary action.

11. Carefully document the steps taken, the decision reached, and all supporting facts. Retain all written documentation in a confidential investigative file.

"If there are only three things that you remember to do, be sure they are document, document, document," Lyncheski says.

Provide alternate routes for complaining of harassment

When devising a complaint procedure for harassment, be sure to provide multiple avenues for reporting the claim. The nature of sexual harassment, for instance, may make a female employee uncomfortable reporting the claim to a male supervisor.

"Additionally, if the person selected by the employer to receive complaints is the target of allegations or is insensitive, designating only one person is risky business" he says.

While it is crucial to take the accuser’s claims seriously, you also must be careful not to abuse the rights of the accused. The accused cannot be treated as guilty until you have sufficient reason to reach that conclusion, and any hasty or careless action could lead to a lawsuit that would rival the original harassment claim. These are the steps that Lyncheski suggests for avoiding a claim by the accused:

• Do not make any decisions until there is a good faith basis for doing so.

• Discuss the problem only with those who have a need to know.

• Do not include any derogatory or inflammatory language concerning either of the parties involved in any written statement.

• Avoid publicly reprimanding the accused harasser. Third-party knowledge can open the way to defamation actions.