When Someone Says, ‘I’ve Been Sexually Harassed’: What to Do Next

Think about this … Someone on your team comes to you with a sexual harassment complaint. Do you know how to handle it?

Most women leaders get it. Many have either been sexual harassed themselves or know women who have been. In fact, almost half of working women say they’ve been harassed at their job, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Women leaders are in a unique position to help other women who’ve been harassed. They can create a safe space for them to tell their stories, of course, but they can also champion a shift in the workplace culture of their own companies. And it starts with how you skillfully handle each complaint.

Handling It Carefully, Confidently, Confidentially

Now more than ever, leaders need to do what to do when sexual harassment’s happening in their workplace. Here, some experts and employment attorneys give their best advice:

Treat all complaints seriously. No matter who came to you or what they said (or whether you believe the person who comes to you with a complaint), you need to listen, then promptly and thoroughly investigate the complaint.

Get the facts. A good first move is to ask the employee to tell you the whole story in their own words, then listen without passing judgment. It’s important to listen to the language the employee uses when reporting the claim and to make factual determinations rather than legal conclusions. “Factually describe the situation without using loaded terms like ‘harassment’ or ‘inappropriate,’” advises employment attorney Janine Yancey, CEO of Emtrain, an online compliance education platform. “Just write the facts and consequences of those facts,” she says. “If described well, the company will see the risk and take action.”

Tell the employee the company’s got their back. It’s the manager’s job at that point to tell the employee that the company has an obligation to look into the allegation, says Steve Cadigan, founder of recruitment firm Cadigan Talent Ventures. Leaders also need to reassure the person that their identity is going to be protected and that retaliation against them won’t be tolerated.

Do not delay action. Slow or inadequate responses can cause lawsuits down the road. Taking prompt action to investigate and remedy situations will show the employee (and courts later on, if necessary) that you not only want to do the right thing, but also, you’re doing your best to create an environment that encourages employees to speak up.

Interview both parties. Unsure which party to believe? To help make a credibility decision, says employment attorney Thomas Pence, you might ask yourself these questions:

  • Are there witnesses to corroborate one of the stories?
  • Has the employee been accused of improper behavior ever engaged in similar behavior in the past?
  • Has either employee previously shown an inclination to be dishonest?
  • Which employee “appeared” more credible when you spoke to him or her?

Delicate position?

Leaders are in a delicate position if they have to investigate allegations against their boss or someone else in upper management. So, knowing when to pull in an outside investigator – and take good advice – is key. These situations may include:

  • the accused or accuser is a VP or above or in HR
  • there are multiple people and incidents
  • the accuser has already hired legal counsel
  • criminal misconduct is alleged, or
  • you lack the resources to do the investigation well.

Take appropriate action. As a leader, you’ll need to take steps with respect to the employee who raised the concerns, says employment attorney Lynne C. Hermle. You might take these protective measures during the investigation, she says:

  • Placing the alleged wrongdoer on paid or unpaid leave
  • Allowing the complainant paid time off
  • Altering work assignments so that an alleged harasser does not work directly with or supervise the complainant, and
  • Ensuring that all supervisors understand that retaliation will not be allowed.

Make an informed decision. Once you conclude the investigation, and the company determines if company policies were violated, it’s time to take appropriate disciplinary action. “The correct discipline, depending on the severity of the situation,” says Hermle, “can include warning, counseling, impact on bonus, impact on future compensation increases, suspension or immediate firing.”

Even in situations in which there are no policy violations, it may be time for your company to review its anti-harassment policies and provide adequate training for all managers and employees.

It’s also important to make sure employees know how to report problems they have with co-workers or managers. That way HR can catch issues before they spiral into something much worse. And thanks to your swift action, those involved will know that you’ve handled their complaints fairly and expeditiously.