Conducting a Sexual Harassment Investigation: 13 Workplace Tips

By Kellie Rondon on Mar 18, 2024
12 min read 2 Comments

Share this:

sexual-harassment-investigation (1)

In 2022, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recorded an alarming 11,090 sexual harassment charges, underscoring the persistent challenge of workplace sexual harassment. This statistic not only sheds light on the prevalence of such incidents but also emphasizes the critical need for organizations to conduct a thorough and effective sexual harassment investigation.

These 13 essential tips are designed to guide HR professionals, managers and all involved parties through the intricate process of a sexual harassment investigation. From the moment an allegation is made to the final resolution steps, these insights are crafted to ensure each case is approached with the necessary diligence, fairness and sensitivity.

RELATED: No Room for Workplace Harassment or Bullying >>

How to Conduct a Sexual Harassment Investigation

Despite its importance, you may feel blindsided and unsure about how to initiate and carry out a workplace sexual harassment investigation. These 13 tips will help you navigate the sensitive and thorny path ahead:

1. Inform: Acknowledging the Complaint

When a complaint of sexual harassment is lodged, it is crucial for HR professionals or the designated authority within an organization to immediately acknowledge receipt of the complaint. This initial response is not merely a procedural step; it serves several important functions:

  • Demonstrates seriousness 

    By acknowledging the complaint promptly, the organization demonstrates to the complainant that their concerns are being taken seriously. This can help build trust in the process and the organization's commitment to maintaining a safe workplace.

  • Provides reassurance 

    For many individuals, making a complaint of sexual harassment requires courage and can be emotionally taxing. A timely acknowledgment provides reassurance that they are heard and their concerns will be addressed.

  • Sets expectations 

    Informing the complainant that their complaint has been received allows the organization to set clear expectations about the investigation process, including potential timelines, steps to be taken and how the complainant will be kept informed.

  • Legal and policy compliance

    Acknowledging receipt of the complaint is also a compliance requirement within many organizations' policies and procedures, and it may be required by law in certain jurisdictions. It ensures that the organization follows its protocols and any legal obligations related to workplace harassment.

RELATED: The High Cost of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace >>

2. Move Quickly: The Importance of Timely Action

Moving quickly to initiate the sexual harassment investigation is another critical step after receiving a complaint of sexual harassment. Prompt action is important for several reasons:

  • Mitigating harm 

    The sooner an investigation begins, the sooner any ongoing harassment can be stopped, thereby minimizing harm to the complainant and any other affected parties.

  • Preserving evidence 

    Taking immediate action helps in the preservation of evidence. Over time, memories fade, and physical evidence can be lost or destroyed. Quick action ensures that evidence is as fresh and accurate as possible.

  • Demonstrating commitment 

    Swift action further reinforces the organization's commitment to addressing sexual harassment seriously and maintaining a respectful and safe work environment.

  • Preventing retaliation

    By moving quickly, the organization can also implement interim measures to protect the complainant and witnesses from retaliation or further harassment while the investigation is underway.

  • Legal implications 

    Prompt sexual harassment investigation and response can have legal implications for the organization. Failure to act quickly may lead to increased liability in some cases.

RELATED: When Employees Harass Coworkers on Social Media, the Employer May Be Liable >>

3. Choose an Investigator

A crucial element of a thorough sexual harassment investigation is the careful selection of investigators. It's recommended to deploy two investigators to capture diverse perspectives, enhancing the fairness and depth of the inquiry. At least one should ideally share the complainant's gender to ensure a sensitive and comfortable dialogue.

Select investigators who are not only impartial but also bring a wealth of experience in dealing with similar cases. If your organization lacks internal resources with the requisite experience and impartiality, partnering with a professional employer organization (PEO), like Axcet HR Solutions, can be invaluable. A PEO can provide seasoned professionals skilled in navigating the intricacies of sexual harassment investigations, ensuring legal compliance and thoroughness.

4. Familiarize Yourself with EEOC Tips

Familiarize yourself with the EEOC’s harassment policy tips for small businesses for information about actions your company should take before, during and after the investigation. 

Additionally, be aware that if any individual involved in the complaint is a union member, a contractor or an employee working under other special circumstances, there may be additional procedures you need to follow. This can include adhering to specific contractual obligations, union agreements or legal requirements that apply to these workers.

Aligning with these guidelines and considerations demonstrates your organization's commitment to a respectful and safe working environment, accommodating the diverse employment arrangements present in today’s workforce.

how to identify and prevent six types of harassment in the workplace

5. Make a Plan

Creating a structured plan before diving into the details of a sexual harassment investigation is crucial for ensuring a clear, efficient, and effective process. This plan should outline the purpose, timeline and scope of the investigation, providing a roadmap that guides all subsequent actions.

Let’s break down these components:

  • Identify the purpose 

    The primary goal of the investigation is to ascertain the facts surrounding the complaint, determine whether sexual harassment occurred, and identify the appropriate course of action. This purpose should be clearly defined to maintain focus and ensure that the investigation is aligned with organizational policies and legal requirements.
  • Establish a timeline

Time is of the essence in sexual harassment investigations. A specific timeline should be established, detailing when the investigation will start, key milestones (such as interviews, evidence review, and decision points), and a target completion date. This timeline ensures the process moves forward promptly, reducing the period of uncertainty for all involved parties and helping to preserve evidence integrity.

  • Define the scope

    The scope of the investigation must be carefully defined to include which allegations will be investigated, the time period being examined, and the individuals involved. This scope should be broad enough to cover all relevant aspects of the complaint but focused to prevent the investigation from becoming unwieldy or straying into unrelated areas.

Planning Considerations:

  • Confidentiality

Ensure that the plan respects the confidentiality of the complainant, the accused and any witnesses. This is critical for protecting the individuals’ privacy and maintaining the integrity of the sexual harassment investigation.

  • Resources needed

Identify the resources and support the investigation will require, such as access to documents, electronic records, and any potential need for external legal or investigative expertise.

  • Communication strategy

    Develop a communication strategy that outlines how and when the parties involved will be updated about the investigation's progress and outcomes, ensuring transparency while maintaining confidentiality.

By meticulously planning the investigation, organizations can navigate the complexities of sexual harassment allegations with a methodical approach. This not only aids in achieving a thorough and fair outcome but also reinforces the organization's commitment to addressing such serious matters with the seriousness and sensitivity they warrant.

RELATED: How a Zero Tolerance Policy Combats Workplace Harassment >>

6. Evidence and Documents

In the critical process of a sexual harassment investigation, the meticulous handling of evidence and documents plays a pivotal role. This step ensures that all pertinent information is accurately identified, securely preserved and thoroughly analyzed.

Below is a detailed exploration of how to effectively manage this aspect of the investigation:

Identify and Secure Key Evidence

The first task is to identify all potential forms of evidence that could shed light on the allegations. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Electronic Communications

    Emails and text messages between the parties involved can provide crucial context or direct evidence of harassment.
  • Personnel Files

    These may contain previous complaints or reports of misconduct, performance evaluations, and any disciplinary actions that could be relevant to the investigation.
  • Company Policies

    Review the organization's harassment and conduct policies to understand the standards against which behavior is measured.

Preserve Evidence

Once identified, it's essential to promptly secure and preserve the evidence. Digital evidence should be backed up, and access to the originals should be restricted to prevent tampering or accidental loss. Physical evidence should be kept in a secure location. This step is crucial for maintaining the integrity of the investigation and ensuring that all information is available for review and analysis.

Prepare for Additional Evidence Collection

As the workplace sexual harassment investigation progresses, new avenues of evidence may emerge:

  • Surveillance Video

    Video footage from security cameras can provide objective evidence about interactions between the individuals involved.
  • Employee Calendars and Attendance Records

    These documents can help verify the whereabouts of individuals on specific dates and times, corroborating or contradicting accounts of the events.
  • Witness Testimonies

    Interviews with witnesses may reveal the need to collect further documentation or direct you to additional sources of evidence.

7. Interview Location

Choosing the right location for interviews during a sexual harassment investigation is more than a logistical decision—it's a strategic one that can significantly impact the comfort level of the interviewees and the overall effectiveness of the investigation.

The goal is to select a setting that ensures privacy, fosters openness and maintains confidentiality.

RELATED: Intimidation at Work, How to Deal with Workplace Bullying >>

8. Preserve Confidentiality

Maintaining confidentiality is crucial in a sexual harassment investigation to protect privacy, uphold the integrity of the process, and prevent retaliation.

Here’s how to effectively preserve confidentiality:

  • Limit information sharing

Only share investigation details with those directly involved or who need to know, emphasizing the need for discretion.

  • Communicate expectations

Clearly explain the importance of confidentiality to all participants at the outset, highlighting its role in protecting everyone involved.

  • Use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)

Consider NDAs to legally enforce confidentiality while being mindful of legal restrictions related to their use in sexual harassment cases.

  • Secure documentation

Keep all investigation-related documents in a secure location, accessible only to authorized personnel. Use encryption for electronic files and secure storage for physical ones.

  • Address breaches promptly

Respond quickly to any breaches of confidentiality, assessing the impact and taking steps to reinforce privacy and address the issue.

9. Set Up and Conduct Interviews

Effectively setting up and conducting interviews is a critical phase of the sexual harassment investigation. Interviews should be meticulously planned to ensure that all relevant parties are heard, including the complainant, the accused, potential witnesses, and anyone else who might have relevant information.

Conducting the Interview

Each interview should start and end by documenting the date, time, attendees, and the issue at hand, along with confirmation of the interviewee's consent to participate. This practice ensures clarity and accountability and should be reflected in interview notes or recordings.

Eight Essential Interviewing Guidelines

  1. Maintain professionalism

    Acknowledge potential discomfort but keep the conversation professional and focused on the facts.

  2. Take complaints seriously

    Treat every complaint with seriousness, regardless of the complainant's history or initial impressions of the allegations.

  3. Stay impartial

    Approach each interview without bias, giving equal weight to all perspectives in the investigation.

  4. Understand resolution expectations

    Clarify what the complainant hopes to achieve with the investigation, without making promises.

  5. Listen attentively

    Prioritize active listening, avoiding personal judgments or comments that could influence the investigation's outcomes.

  6. Detail-oriented fact gathering

    Concentrate on collecting detailed information about the alleged misconduct, including timelines, frequency, locations, witnesses, and impacts on the complainant.

  7. Identify support needs

    Determine any immediate support the complainant may need, such as counseling or workplace adjustments, while ensuring these are not perceived as punitive.

  8. Assure non-retaliation

    Reinforce the organization’s commitment to protecting the complainant from retaliation.

By adhering to these guidelines, investigators can conduct thorough and respectful interviews, gather the essential information needed to assess the situation and move toward a resolution.

sample script difficult conversation with an employee

10. Evaluate the Evidence

If the parties’ stories conflict, as is common, you may need to re-interview witnesses to ask for more information or check your understanding of what they’ve said. Ultimately, you’ll be forced to decide whom to believe.

The EEOC suggests weighing these factors:

  • Whose story makes sense and is most believable?
  • Does the witness’s demeanor seem to indicate that he or she is telling the truth?
  • Does he or she have a reason to lie or deceive?
  • Do evidence or other witnesses’ narratives support the witness’s version of the events?
  • Does the accused employee have a past history of misconduct?

It’s possible, especially if no one has witnessed the alleged wrongdoing, that you will not be able to resolve whether the alleged sexual harassment occurred. In this case, you can still remind employees that your workplace policies prohibit any such behavior.

You also should let the complaining employee know that you will not retaliate because of the complaint, that you are committed to a harassment- and discrimination-free workplace and that any future incidents should be reported immediately.

11. Take Action

If, after reviewing the interview notes and other evidence, you conclude that misconduct has occurred, decide quickly what steps you will take. Depending on the seriousness of the behavior, this may include training or other corrective action, or it may involve disciplining or terminating the accused employee.

You do not have to take the action the complainant has recommended, but you should attempt to help him or her understand your decision.

12. Document the Process

After your workplace sexual harassment investigation is complete, write a thorough summary of the allegation that was investigated, all who were interviewed, what they said and when and where the interviews took place.

Include a detailed chronology of the investigation beginning with the time the complaint was filed. The report also should explain the evidence you gathered and considered, the decisions you made, any issues that couldn’t be resolved and the actions you took to address the complaint.

RELATED: How to Handle Employees Who Behave Badly Online >>

13. Follow Up

Review the sexual harassment investigation process and results to identify how your company could better respond to a similar situation in the future. Look for any systemic issues or patterns of complaints that may have come to light through the investigation.

If any emerge, consider training or other actions your company might take to sidestep similar problems down the road. Establish a clear procedure for reporting misconduct, and let your employees know how to use it.

The best investigation is the one you never have to conduct. To keep your workplace free of harassment and discrimination, maintain strict policies against such behaviors and make sure employees are aware of and trained on these policies.

Streamline HR Investigations: Partner with Axcet HR Solutions

Conducting a thorough sexual harassment investigation is essential for creating a safe and inclusive work environment. Axcet HR Solutions, a trusted Kansas PEO and HR company, is here to support you in this critical process.

Contact us today to leverage our expertise in conducting workplace sexual harassment investigations, ensuring fairness and maintaining legal compliance. Our experienced team will guide you through every step, from gathering evidence to providing resolution strategies. Schedule a consultation today.

Contact Axcet HR Solutions

Written by Kellie Rondon

Get HR Updates

Table of Contents

Related Resources

Workplace Inclusion: Tapping the Talents of Individuals with Autism

autism in the workplace
tornado preparedness

Bracing for Impact: Tornado Preparedness Strategies for Businesses

Let us know what you think...