Paper Trails

Investigating harassment claims

There are many conflicts that can happen between employees in the workplace. One instance that may occur is when one employee files an harassment claim against a coworker.  In this situation, it is important for the employer to know how to proceed.  Let’s take a look at what you should do when investigating a harassment claim.

What is considered workplace harassment?

Most employers generally understand the basics of what is considered workplace harassment.  However, many often neglect or tend to forget that discrimination is also considered a form of harassment. According to the EEOC, unlawful harassment is a form of discrimination that can violate one or more federal statutes, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Workplace harassment and discrimination can relate to each other because both may involve unwelcome verbal or physical conduct and behaviors often associated with protected classes including race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, ethnicity, age, and disability. Harassment may result from internal sources, like employees and managers, or external sources such as customers or vendors.

Examples of workplace harassment include:

  • Use of derogatory or mockery words encompassing skin color, religion, gender, age, and stereotypes.
  • Body language and materials considered offensive.
  • Insulting inferences or sexual references about an individual’s appearance.

How to investigate a harassment claim

Investigating a harassment claim can be intimidating.  While each situation can be unique, below are some steps that you can follow to help with the process.

  1. Select an interviewer. This person should be an impartial manager, company officer, or HR representative. Ideally, they have completed training on conducting a harassment investigation. They should approach the investigation process without a presumption of guilt or innocence and with a commitment to being fair and thorough. The investigation should be conducted as expeditiously as possible after receiving the claim.
  2. Conduct interviews and gather evidence. Speak with the employee who made the complaint, the accused employee, and any witnesses named. The questions asked during the interviews should not lead an interviewee toward a particular response and should not be accusatory in nature. The questions should be unbiased, open ended, and prepared in advance; don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions. Also think about any documents, emails, photographs, videos, etc., that might exist and assist you in coming to a fair conclusion in your investigation.
  3. Make a decision and take action. Once the interviews are complete and all evidence is gathered, decide what to do and document the conclusions and actions taken. If the company determines that the accused employee violated the harassment or other workplace policy, appropriate disciplinary measures should be taken. What qualifies as appropriate will depend on the severity of behavior. A summary of the findings should be placed in the accused employee’s file. The accused employee should be reminded that any retaliation against their accuser is unacceptable.
  4. Inform the employee who made the complaint. Alert the complaining employee—and others with a true need to know—about the conclusions reached in your investigation. While you don’t need to share the specific disciplinary action taken, the complaining employee should be assured that you took appropriate steps to address the current situation and prevent future harassment. Remind this employee that retaliation will not be tolerated and that they should let you know if they feel they’re experiencing any backlash because of their complaint.

Resources for businesses

Employers should strive to create an environment in which employees feel free to raise concerns and are confident that those concerns will be addressed. Therefore, minimize your company’s liabilities by protecting your business against lawsuits and preventing harassment in the workplace by consistently communicating and educating all of your employees and supervisors.  Be sure to have, or update, a company policy in your employee handbook regarding workplace harassment.

Below are some resources for employers to use when it comes to harassment in the workplace.

Anti-Harassment Policy Checklist

Guide to Identifying and Preventing Workplace Harassment

Compliant/Concern Intake Form