Investigating a Sexual Harassment Complaint

Equal Rights Publication ERD-10448-P

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Once a complaint of harassment has been made to an employer or the employer is otherwise aware that a problem exists, an internal investigation should be promptly conducted by a person familiar with harassment issues and company policy. Delay in investigating the charge can demoralize affected staff and may adversely affect witness credibility. Try to obtain a written complaint to serve as the basis of an investigation.

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Table of Contents

Initial Steps

  1. Listen attentively and take the complaint seriously, even if the complaint initially appears questionable. Treat it as valid until the facts have been established otherwise. If the employee quits because she or he felt her complaint wasn't being taken seriously, liability may be compounded. Avoid comments like "Maybe you're overreacting," or "I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it."
  2. Set a professional tone for the interview and try to put the complainant at ease. Bringing a harassment complaint is often difficult and stressful for the employee. Acknowledge that fact and try to help the employee understand this is normal. Keep a neutral perspective however, and maintain a professional demeanor.
  3. Gather facts, don't make judgments. At this stage, you are not determining the complaint's validity. The job at hand is to gather the facts. Stay away from comments such as, "Most people would be complimented by that" or "Maybe you shouldn't dress that way for work." Speak in a matter-of-fact, but supportive way, not one in which you appear to be "cross examining" the complainant. This may ease the tension that is often present.
  4. Get answers to: "who, what, when, where, why and how. " Encourage the complainant to be as specific as possible. Find out who did what to whom, when did events happen, why and how did they occur, and were there any witnesses? At this stage it would also be wise to ask the employee if he or she is concerned about retaliation, which is often a concern of harassment victims.
  5. Try to avoid leading questions, such as: "Did he tell offensive jokes? "Instead, ask open-ended questions, such as: "What did he say?" or "Where did he touch you?"
  6. Getting a sense of what the employee feels would be an acceptable outcome may be important at this stage. What does the employee want to see happen to resolve the problem?


Interviewing the Complainant

Interviewing the Accused

Interview the Accused's Supervisor

Interviewing Witnesses

Resolving the Complaint

Hard to Resolve Situations

  1. No witnesses-Harassment often happens in private with no witnesses. In such cases resolution often centers on the credibility of the parties. If the complainant's account of the conduct is sufficiently detailed and internally consistent it may be believable. An investigation should look for other evidence to support or disprove a claim. Do co-workers have any knowledge of the conduct? Did anyone observe the employee's behavior shortly after the alleged incident occurred? Did the employee discuss the matter with another person such as a counselor, doctor or close friend? Did anyone notice any change in behavior of the employee at work or in the way the accused treated the complainant? Were other employees treated in a similar manner by the accused?
  2. Reluctant Complainant-If a victim tells a supervisor about lewd or sexually harassing behavior, but doesn't want to make a formal complaint, what obligation does the employer have? Even if the victim is reluctant to pursue a complaint, the employer may be held liable for harassment if it fails to investigate and take any appropriate corrective action. The supervisor should explain the company's duty to act and assure the employee that the matter will be handled as discreetly as possible. The investigation will obviously be reaffirm its harassment policy and its insistence on a harassment free workplace.

This is one in a series of guides for fair employment practices. It is not legal advice. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, a competent professional should be sought.

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