How to Set Up an Effective Sexual Harassment Complaint Process

The issue of sexual harassment at work has been a problem for years, but is finally getting some of the attention it deserves. With a growing number of well-known and previously well-respected figures being implicated and shamed, all business leaders should be thinking about how this cultural shift will affect their workplace.

There’s much to be done in the way of understanding why sexual harassment happens, how it goes unreported, and how it can be prevented altogether. We’ve discussed the bystander’s role in letting the harassment happen, the problem with toxic employees who aren’t held accountable, and the general importance of addressing cultural problems at their root of sexual harassment cases instead of quibbling about the legality of various actions.

But even with a solid understanding of organizational culture and making an effort to get training, one of the most important things you can do right now is revisit your sexual harassment complaint process. You need to make sure that it there is a solid infrastructure in place to handle any complaints.

The earlier that any given problem is addressed, the less damage it will do to your organization. Catching problems as early as possible is crucial, and there’s no way to do that if employees are confused about who to talk to or what the official procedure is.

Here’s what you need to know to set up an effective complaint process.

Clarify Responsibilities

The first step is to create a clear line of responsibility when it comes to fielding the actual complaints. Employees need to know exactly where they can go to make the complaint, and managers need to know exactly what their responsibilities are when a complaint is made.

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Usually the people put in charge of fielding complaints are an employee’s immediate manager or supervisor. However, there needs to be an alternative, as well, in case the employee doesn’t feel comfortable making the complaint to the first option. In most companies, this responsibility usually falls to the HR department, although smaller companies with no HR rep may just move the responsibility up the chain of leadership.

The person designated to field these complaints should ideally have a deep understanding of the organizational culture and of the people who work there so they can apply as much big picture context to the situation as possible.

They should also be well-versed in the practice of listening well and respectfully by welcoming any complaints, making great eye contact, not interrupting, and asking open ended questions without judgement. These situations are uncomfortable and nerve-wracking for everyone, and coming in with a stuffy or legalistic approach is not the way to handle things. Great listeners use empathy and assure employees that they’re being heard.

The procedures for making a sexual harassment complaint should be part of an overall sexual harassment policy that details your organization’s comprehensive approach to the problem. This policy, including the complaint process, should be easy for employees to access via their employee handbooks.
Sexual harassment procedure

Have Complaint Report Templates Ready

The first step in many organizations’ sexual harassment policies involves encouraging employees to work things out amongst themselves, if possible. But if employees have already tried this or want to jump straight to an official complaint, you need to be ready.

You can use a template to fill out an official report to keep on file. Your lawyer can advise you on all the specifics that should go into an official complaint, but they typically involve some form of the following essential details:

  • The date and time the report was made
  • A description of what happened (time, date, place, people involved)
  • A description of the action that the organization is taking (usually an investigation or some step on the disciplinary procedure, which we will discuss next)
  • A note that the employee understands what retaliation is and that they should report any potential experiences of retaliation
  • A note that employees should report any instances of ongoing harassment after the report was made.
  • Space for signatures of the employee making the report

Having these templates ready before any complaints are ever made is the only way to make sure that your organization doesn’t get into trouble by fudging the details of actual complaint and the report of the complaint.

Note that it’s a best practice to always have some kind of written record of any conversation pertaining to these issues, even if an official complaint hasn’t been filed yet.

Act Quickly

Many of the biggest legal problems to arise from sexual harassment complaints don’t stem from the complaints themselves, but from the organization’s reaction to them.

If a lawyer can show that an organization’s response to a complaint was insufficient, either because leaders didn’t respond with urgency, didn’t seem to take them seriously, or started to treat the employee differently because of the complaint, the organization could eventually be held responsible for big fines.

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Not only is dealing with harassment promptly the right thing to do ethically (after all, there’s a chance that one of your employees is been treated badly on your watch), ignoring it invites other problems that make the issue even worse. Specifically, the longer the unresolved complaint lingers, the more likely it is for rumours to spread and for illegal retaliatory action to take place.

It’s interesting that the number of sexual harassment complaints made to the federal government has drastically gone down in the past decades, but the number of retaliation cases reported has almost doubled in that time, as this Bloomberg article points out.

The decline in reported sexual harassment cases is likely due to companies getting better at handling complaints internally, or even forcing their employees to handle sexual harassment complaints privately through arbitration. But about three quarters of all sexual harassment complaints also include allegations of retaliation, which makes retaliation claims a bit of a bellwether for sexual harassment claims.

Because the occurrence of retaliation is so common, it should be part of every conversation about sexual harassment.

A Note on Prevention

The ability for employees to make complaints easily, confidentially and without judgement is a crucial part of your organization’s sexual harassment policy. However, it is just one part. Comprehensive policies will also include a clear definition of what behavior constitutes sexual harassment, how complaints will be investigated and judged, and how offenders will be punished.

While a policy is an important part of taking the threat of sexual harassment seriously, perhaps even more important are efforts to reduce the likelihood that any complaints should be made.

As we wrote in our post on Fixing Your Harassment Crisis Before it Hits, the biggest problem in most organizations’ approach to sexual harassment prevention is failing to recognize it as a business-critical issue.
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If leaders are constantly in reactive or damage control mode instead of working hard to create a culture where harassment can’t thrive, they’ll have to do the much harder work of fielding complaints and lawsuits more often.

When your organizational leadership cultivates a welcoming environment where staff members feel comfortable raising concerns of all kinds, many problematic-but-legal issues will be dealt with openly and promptly before they become more threatening and difficult to resolve.

If you want to do your part to create this kind of environment in your own workplace, we would love to help. ELI’s award-winning training was developed to instill the kind of civil workplace culture that lasts for the long-term. If you’d like to learn more, please contact us or request a quote.

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