HR Management & Compliance

The Dangers of Mishandling Harassment Complaints

Every day, we go to work expecting to be able to do our jobs without harassment or unneeded stress. Unfortunately, not everyone is granted that opportunity. In fact, there were over 26,000 reports of workplace harassment in 2018 alone. Obviously, a problem exists.

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The only way to put a dent in the issue is to have strict guidelines in place and properly escalate any complaint received by management or HR. Failure to take the right steps could result in many negative consequences, including major lawsuits or reputational damage that could sink even the largest company.

The easiest thing to do is nip it in the bud so you can avoid these dangers and provide a safe workplace. Here are a few tips for doing just that and the potential repercussions if you don’t.

Set Clear Expectations

The first step to avoiding the issues associated with not properly escalating harassment complaints is by having a strict zero-tolerance policy in place that states in clear terms that harassment of any kind will not be allowed in the workplace and failure to comply will result in termination or worse. Signage should be placed around the office, and signed forms should be included in new hire paperwork to emphasize the importance.

It is essential to remember that harassment comes in many forms, and all of it should be reported. Of course, discrimination occurs when a worker who is part of a protected class, including race, religion, sex, and physical disability, is treated differently by management or coworkers. In addition, there is physical harassment, which occurs when physical attacks or threats of harm take place. There is even power harassment, which is when a supervisor puts unneeded pressure on a team member. A workplace must not allow any of this to take place.

There are many reasons an employee might not report harassment, including feeling he or she will not be believed or that the complaint won’t be taken seriously. You do not want complaints to be withheld because employees don’t know how to report misdeeds, which is why you must have clear reporting guidelines in the employee manual and employees should be encouraged to go to HR if a manager is the culprit.

Essentially, if the person in charge of the victim is the harasser, the victim should go to the next person up the chain. Ensure there are always multiple reporting channels.

How to Properly Handle the Complaint

An effective and thorough complaint process needs to be set up for all employees if they feel harassed. That should include having an open-door HR policy. If a manager is informed of the harassment, he or she should know whom to direct the complaint to for a resolution. Keep in mind that employers can still be liable for harassment even if a complaint process exists, especially if HR does not have the training necessary to document and escalate the complaint.

When an employee comes to HR with an issue, make it clear you are there to listen to the person’s story and that there will be no retaliation for telling on a coworker. Have the employee report the issue from start to finish as you take detailed notes, ensuring you document all facts, dates, times, and locations. Once the statement has been recorded, assure the victim there will be a thorough investigation.

Depending on the type of harassment complaint, as well as state and local guidelines, there are specific legal requirements for how you proceed with your investigation into the complaint. Regardless of the procedures, you are required to investigate any harassment complaint, formal or informal. Though each policy differs by state, many businesses are also required to have a written harassment policy, and you will need to stand by it.

Ramifications of Improper Handling

It is worth the planning required to create a harassment complaint process because failure to take the proper precautions can create major issues for your business. While a loss of money can be a big hit, the damage to your reputation could be just as catastrophic if it is discovered you are a company that doesn’t take harassment complaints seriously.

You do not want to be known as a company that has issues with racial discrimination or sexual harassment because it will lead to not only bad press but also a potential lack of quality job candidates in the future.

Many companies have learned this the hard way, including the Ford Motor Company when more than 70 employees stated they were sexually assaulted, resulting in over $20 million in damages. At Google, 20,000 employees protested the company after it gave payouts to executives accused of harassment. This is not the kind of attention you need, especially if you are a smaller company that may not be able to bounce back.

If workplace harassment can be proven and your company ignored the claim or did little to resolve it, then the harassed employee could have grounds to sue your business. Even if the suit results in a settlement, that could still mean major financial losses. On the other side of the coin, it is very important that HR document all of the steps it took to resolve the complaint in case an employee still attempts to file a lawsuit.

On top of that, a lawsuit might also involve an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which applies zero tolerance when it comes to harassment. Its thorough investigation might find other, deeper issues with your HR team and may even uncover other victims of harassment. This is more unwanted attention on your business, and word will inevitably leak that your office has issues with such claims.

The bottom line is that it is essential that your company have a complaint process in place and hold all employees accountable. No one wants to think about the possibility of harassment, but it can happen, and staying ahead of the game is key.

Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college, he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics, but business and digital marketing topics are his favorite. When he isn’t writing, you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.

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