[Video] Workplace Harassment: Conducting an Investigation
When someone files a workplace harassment complaint, how do you proceed? For instance, within how many days should an investigation start after an initial complaint is filed? And what types of questions should you ask each party involved? Paychex HR consultant Julie Williams provides insight into these and other key steps of an investigation.
If you've received a harassment complaint from an employee, what are the appropriate steps for conducting a prompt, thorough, and objective investigation? First, every company should have a designated and trained individual responsible for conducting investigations. Interview the employee who lodged the harassment claim, the alleged harasser, and any witnesses as soon as possible. A good rule of thumb is no more than two days after someone issues a complaint. Make sure to avoid accusatory or leading questions when interviewing, and remain neutral in your responses. These conversations should all be documented.
You might ask the employee who lodged the complaint questions such as: What happened? Where and when did this take place? And what events led to the incident? Notify the employee that it may be necessary to speak with other employees to try to determine what occurred.
You may ask the alleged harasser to provide an account of the situation, behavior, or conduct in question, and whether anyone else was present that may be able to corroborate the story.
Lastly, interview any witnesses. Explain the purpose of the meeting and ask that they provide information verbally and in writing. It's also important to mention that retaliation is strictly prohibited against any individual participating in the investigation, and they should notify you immediately if they feel they are being retaliated against.
Whenever possible, gather all relevant emails, text messages, video, audio, or other evidence. There should also be a record of any warnings given. Keep this information until the investigation ends.
Following the interviews, you'll need to weigh the testimony of both sides and review any history of past allegations. Your assessment should include acknowledgment of a witness's indirect admissions and any motivation to lie. Where allegations are determined to be truthful, notify the complainant that the investigation is complete, and the action is or will be taken. You may want to mention that you cannot disclose the exact disciplinary action to be taken against the alleged harasser.
If allegations are determined to be false or inconclusive, the investigator should judge whether this is due to a misunderstanding, or intentionally filing a false claim. Let the complainant know that charges could not be substantiated, and there will be no disciplinary action. If you believe that a false accusation was intentionally made, you may need to consider disciplinary action against the complainant based on company policy and the facts of the situation. If necessary, speak with legal counsel for guidance.
The final report should include relevant background information, applicable company policies, key factual findings, and summary conclusion.
As you can see, conducting an investigation into a harassment claim can involve many steps. But it's critical that you are prompt, thorough, and objective as you go through this process.