Public opinion can be fickle. So many people have been supportive of all the victims of harassment and abuse, and rightly so. We should applaud the courageous for coming forward. However, many also worry we are rushing to a decision of guilty. Are we taking complaints at only face value? How do we prevent complaints from becoming witch hunts? How do we prevent false claims that undermine the effort to stop decades of abuse?
We should be proud of our country and its practice of due process. Instead of an "off with their heads!" approach to solving problems, we generally rely on due process for presuming innocence until proven guilty. This applies to today's events more than ever.
Employee claims are a challenge for every employer. It's a mistake to believe you can have a workplace filled with sunshine and roses. It's human nature to complain, even when there isn't too much to complain about. Handling a complaint can be difficult and it needs to be done correctly.
All employers should have a set of fair treatment policies in their handbook and it should also outline the complaint procedures. They go something like this:
Step 1: Report the incident first to human resources and _________. If the incident involves a supervisor or the employee is uncomfortable reporting the incident to a supervisor, the incident should be reported to human resources and ___________.
Step 2: We will impartially gather all the facts to determine the need for an investigation.
Step 3: If warranted, a comprehensive and confidential-as-possible investigation will begin.
Step 4: The investigator will interview the employee, the accused harasser(s), and witnesses(s) if appropriate, and review any supporting evidence.
Step 5: After an appropriate investigation, ________ will review the facts and determine the next steps.
Step 6: The complainant will receive an appropriate response when the investigation has ended. If management determines that prohibited harassment, discrimination or other inappropriate conduct has occurred, the company will take remedial action. Complainants not satisfied with the company's response are required to report their dissatisfaction in writing to _______ within five days of being notified of the final decision.
We always advise to never, ever ignore a complaint. Remember that even if you don't consider a complaint important, the employee who complains does.
Your employees need to know you'll listen to their concerns. Even complaints based on rumors and misinformation must be dealt with promptly.
You're sending a message that your complaint procedures work. Conversations can expose more serious problems. Some employees just need to blow off a little steam. But where there is smoke, there may be fire. It's the employer's burden to determine whether an investigation is needed.
Cases involving sexual, racial, ethnic, or some other form of harassment always require an investigation. There are special procedures for investigating and resolving these cases. Proper documentation is key. It takes a trained and experienced investigator to assess credibility.
If the accused voluntarily confesses, it's usually game over. No investigation needed. But when the accused denies the offense, it is extremely important to have an impartial, fact-finding procedure to get to the truth.
Investigations should be conducted by a higher level, an HR consultant, or labor attorney. At a minimum they should be brought in to advise management on what to do. The employer wants to demonstrate it has followed its own complaint procedures in a fair and impartial way, that the facts were reviewed, and to make a final determination.
Along with requests for investigations and trainings, we are also asked about ideas for curbing future abuse.
I wouldn't say harassment training has been a total failure, but we have to acknowledge it has done little to prevent or deter sexual harassment. It's made us take pause and think of other solutions to turn things around.
Imagine if the blanks in the above steps contained the following:
An employee hotline
A third party i.e. an HR consultant
An omnibus person
An employee assistance program agent
A specially formed fair treatment committee.
Although any system can be manipulated, we believe introducing these new complaint channels will do a better job of uncovering problems. If a determination of harassment turns false, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. That's an old idiomatic expression for an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad, or in other words, rejecting the essential along with the inessential.
In a country that values due process, we must try not to jump to conclusions nor dismiss the facts. Even when the facts are few and far between, sources experienced at investigations can help develop a conclusion. A final determination must be made for every case. Every serious claim requires a thoughtful, expert investigation. In this way, we will continue on the path of credibility, and hopefully, finally curbing the abuse.