If an employee has complained of harassment at your company, you may be feeling nervous about what to do. After all, harassment claims can lead to poor morale, workplace tension, and even lawsuits. But if you take the complaint seriously and conduct a thorough investigation, you can reduce the legal and practical risks.
Before you even get a complaint, you should think about your company's procedures. Do you have a written policy against harassment? Does it explain what harassment is and how employees can report it? You should. The Supreme Court has held that companies that have an effective policy banning harassment, including a complaint process, and that thoroughly investigate employee complaints, can avoid liability for certain types of harassment claims. To take advantage of this protection, however, you must take your legal obligation to provide a workplace free of harassment seriously. That means, among other things, making it easy for employees to report harassment and following up appropriately on any complaints you receive. (Check out Nolo's Employer's Harassment Policy, which will help you meet these obligations.)
An effective harassment policy must tell employees how and where to report harassment. You should always choose more than one person to take complaints, to accommodate employees who may have a complaint against one of the people designated or who simply don't feel comfortable with one of them. You should never require employees to complain only to their own manager or supervisor. Often, this is the person about whom the employee wants to complain. If you have a human resources department, you can designate them to take complaints.
Here are a few basic rules to follow when investigating a complaint of harassment. Of course, how you proceed will depend on the facts of your situation. You can find detailed information on how to conduct an investigation in The Essential Guide to Workplace Investigations.
Once you've gathered the evidence, you'll have to decide what happened and what to do about it. If you conclude that harassment took place, you should act quickly to put a stop to it. You must prevent any further inappropriate behavior and correct any that has already taken place, through discipline or even termination, depending on the severity of the situation. You may also need to take wider action. For example, if your investigation reveals that employees don't really understand appropriate workplace behavior or how to complain about harassment, some company-wide training may be a good idea.