Question: An employee confided to our HR department about an incident that made her uncomfortable, where her supervisor made a comment about her skirt. How should we handle this?
Answer: A company has an affirmative duty... to conduct a thorough investigation every time it is made aware that harassment may be taking place in the organization. Inappropriate sexual comments, discrimination based upon gender and/or sexual orientation, and inappropriate behavior all fall under the definition of illegal sexual harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state agencies take harassment complaints seriously, and failing to conduct an investigation could leave a company subject to liability for a sexual harassment discrimination claim as well as owing damages if the company does not act immediately.
Although not every inappropriate comment will be viewed as harassment, every report of such should be treated with respect and followed up in accordance with company policy. Typically, the nature of the complaint will determine how you should begin the investigation. In the case of your employee, consider taking the following steps:
- Listen to your employee’s concern with consideration and advise the employee that the company takes reports of wrongdoing seriously and will investigate thoroughly, and that confidentiality will be observed to the extent practical to protect everyone’s privacy.
- Ask if the employee had responded to her supervisor and let the supervisor know that the comments made her uncomfortable.
- Ask if there were any other witnesses to the comments and if this was a one-time remark or if comments on the employee’s appearance have occurred previously with the employee or others.
- Determine what the employee wants or expects will be done as a result of bringing this concern to you (either simply wanting the remark(s) to stop or more aggressive action).
- Tell the employee that you will be investigating this issue and addressing it with the involved party to make him or her aware that the comments caused discomfort so that the company can ensure that this no longer occurs.
- Let the employee know that retaliation for making a report of misconduct or harassment is forbidden by the company and that she should immediately advise you of any perceived retaliation or of further incidents of misconduct or harassment.
- Be sure that during the initial interview with the employee, you obtain:
- The description of each incident, including date, time, place, and nature of conduct.
- A description of her responses to the individual with each incident.
- The names of any witnesses to the alleged incident.
Although this type of situation can be difficult when the accused party holds a supervisory position in the company, the law still holds the company accountable for following up on complaints of inappropriate behavior, conducting a prompt and impartial investigation, and taking appropriate action if the claim is substantiated.
If the investigation does not result in a violation of company policy or harassment, the matter should still be addressed with the supervisor and others in management to ensure future issues do not arise.