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Investigating a Sexual Harassment Complaint

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.

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 was not 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 do not 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 might be important at this stage. What does the employee want to see happen to resolve the problem?


  1. While complete confidentiality may not be possible, keep the investigation and the facts under a strict "need to know" basis. Emphasize to all those involved in the investigation, including the complainant, the accused and witnesses, that it is your policy to keep discussions strictly confidential and that disciplinary consequences may result from a breach of this confidence.
  2. Limit the number of persons who have access to information. Avoid needless disclosure of information to witnesses. For example, instead of asking, "Did you see Joe touching Joan?" ask, "Have you seen anyone at work touch Joan in an offensive way?" The investigation is done to gather facts, not disseminate allegations.
  3. If there is more than one allegation, treat each incident separately.
  4. To avoid liability for defamation, never broadcast the facts of a given situation or the results of your investigation to others or as part of a training exercise.

Interviewing the Complainant

Interviewing the Accused

Interviewing the Accused's Supervisor

Interviewing Witnesses

Resolving the Complaint

Hard to Resolve Situations