So, it’s happened in your organization. A serious sexual harassment claim has been made. Worse yet, it is against a senior team member or someone who brings a lot of clients and money to the company. Now you’re left to deal with the stress, worry and emotion of the next steps. What you do next will seriously impact the culture and productivity of your company going forward – as well as the cost of the complaint to your reputation and bottom line.
This type of allegation suggests you may already have a culture issue in your company. Proceeding carefully and correctly gives you the chance to improve the trust in your company in addition to addressing the issue at hand. Follow the steps below to get to effectively look into the complaint and protect the organization and your employees.
Quickly Determine if an Investigation is Required
Ask detailed, to the point and thorough questions to make a preliminary determination as to whether or not to formally investigate. This must be done in a timely manner as complaints of this nature must be taken seriously and addressed quickly. Ensure you keep an open mind to not pre-judge what the outcome will be. Your goal is to determine if the allegations were made in good faith and whether the alleged behaviours may constitute sexual harassment or a breach of any company policies.
Once you’ve determined that an investigation is required, you need to decide on an investigation strategy. Depending on level, seniority and/or reporting relationships, you may want to hire an external investigator to remove any real or perceived bias. Click here for a great blog on determining whether to proceed internally or get assistance from an external investigator.
Keep an Open Mind
Whether you’ve chosen to investigate the matter in-house or use an external investigator, it’s important to keep an open mind and not fall into the trap of pre-judging the outcome. This is most important if you are attempting the investigation internally, as pre-conceived assumptions will bias the questions and your understanding of the responses. With sexual harassment allegations, the outcome of the investigation may have a serious impact on the life, reputation and livelihoods of both the complainants and respondents. It is critical to be sure you have a clear picture of the circumstances so that you are able to report findings with the highest degree of impartiality and accuracy possible.
During a sensitive investigation, such as sexual harassment, take steps to ensure there isn’t contact between the complainant and the respondent. Many organizations will place the respondent on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. If you do so, it’s important to remove IT access and instruct all parties to not destroy any evidence. Allowing people an opportunity to delete texts and emails will complicate your investigation, cause more work and make determining findings more difficult.
Be Efficient and Thorough
Completing the investigation as quickly as possible is key, while still maintaining the highest integrity possible. While an investigation is pending productivity stalls and, more importantly, people’s careers and lives are on hold. As a result, it is a very stressful time for everyone involved. While time is of the essence, get answers to your critical questions before concluding interviews. This may involve going back to previously interviewed individuals, particularly ones who you spoke to early, as some further information may have come about through the process. Everyone must have a chance to respond to allegations made against them.
Ensure your findings are concise and to the point. Maintain focus on the allegations made and what you need to determine. Investigations often take turns and have unanticipated or unrelated factors thrown in. Therefore, it’s critical to stay focused on the identified issue or incident. As you conduct the investigation, you may identify issues related to a culture, communication, training or one of many other areas. While it is important to note theses to look into later, these are not the main issue, so do not let them distract you or cloud your findings.
Ensure Prompt Resolution
It is important to advise the complainants and respondents of the outcomes once your investigation is completed and the findings determined. Do this as soon as you have a plan for next steps. Again, it is important to stay focused on the allegations and the findings directly related to them. When you notify those involved of the outcomes, be sure to maintain confidentiality of processes, witness statements and other information gathered during the process. Making both parties aware of the outcome may be all that is required. However, depending on the findings, there may also be a discussion about discipline involved. It is critical to ensure that no complainant is ever disciplined or retaliated against for making a complaint in good faith, regardless of the outcome.
Following the steps above will help you mitigate the risks associated with sexual harassment claims and determine accurate findings. Please remember throughout the entire process that people are involved in all aspects and emotions may be high due to the nature of the complaint and potential impacts to careers and reputations. Therefore, treat everyone with as much dignity and respect as possible.
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