Quick tips on managing workplace harassment allegations
Posted 7 years ago on · Permalink
By Andrew J. Yu, CHRP
Recent intense media coverage of work-related harassment has led to a number of my business contacts inquiring about what to do if they hear of such complaints from their employees. Here is a summary of what I inform them:
1. Never “do nothing”
Allegations of harassment from employees often come as a shock; to avoid being overwhelmed, it is important that every employer develop and implement a comprehensive workplace harassment policy, which is part of an employer’s occupational health and safety obligations. Dismissing the complainant employee’s concerns and/or not doing anything in response contravenes the employer’s legal obligations to maintain a safe and healthy workplace.
2. Recognizing a harassment complaint
In general, workplace disputes that are centered on performance of duties are better addressed through routine management action. However, if one or more the following are present, the matter should be handled as a harassment complaint:
– The complaining employee expresses that they are being targeted personally, especially if based on human rights proscribed grounds e.g. race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression;
– The alleged wrongful behaviour is sexual in nature;
– Physical violence or destruction of property is alleged;
– Serious threats e.g. bodily harm or sexual assault;
– Allegations of reprisal due to a previous complaint.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and investigate.
3. What to say to a complainant
An employee who complains of harassment should always be informed that the complaint will be taken seriously and handled professionally. It should be explained that in order to take action that is fair for everyone involved, an unbiased confidential investigation will be conducted. The employee should also be encouraged to share all relevant information with the investigator.
4. Immediate actions
Employers should take harassment complaints seriously by keeping an open mind and not giving anyone “the benefit of the doubt”. To avoid causing continued distress, the complainant employee and the respondent (i.e. the alleged harasser) should be separated from each other at work; if necessary, one of them can be removed from the workplace with pay pending the conclusion of the investigation.
To ensure confidentiality, information about the investigation should be disclosed only on a “need to know” basis.
5. Initiate an impartial investigation
Once the harassment complaint is received, an impartial investigation should be conducted; if the employer does not have experienced investigators on staff, the services of a professional external investigator should be retained.
Please note that the above is for general information only; for legal advice, please contact your legal counsel.
Andrew J. Yu, CHRP, is an independent external investigator specializing in affordable workplace investigations for all employers. He has over 10 years of professional experience in HR at Canada’s largest employer and can work with you to help ensure you comply with the workplace harassment obligations under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act.