An Employee Files a Complaint...Now What?
Most employers are anxious when faced with a discrimination or harassment complaint. And with good reason: such complaints can lead to workplace tension, government investigations, and even costly legal battles. However, if you take the complaint seriously and follow a careful strategy of dealing with the situation, you can reduce the likelihood of a lawsuit and even improve employee relations.
It's 2014 and everyone has (or should have, hint, hint) an anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, and anti-retaliation policy. But it's not enough to just have the policies written down – it's essential to be trained and know what steps to take when certain situations arise. When an employee makes a harassment or discrimination case, follow these 5 steps to get on the right track.
1. Keep an Open Mind. Take the time to listen to the accuser's complaint. Even if a workplace seems free of conflict, this does not rule out the possibility of harassment or discrimination. Avoid making the following mistakes when listening to an employee's complaint:
- Do not make assumptions about the truthfulness of the complaint
- Do not reach unfounded conclusions
- Do not fail to recognize whether a complaint involves illegal discrimination based on sex, race, national origin, disability, age or religion
- Do not decide to not investigate
2. Take Complaints Seriously. There is nothing worse for an employee than to make a complaint that is not taken seriously by an employer. Even if the employee has a history of making complaints, it is necessary to take each one seriously. Employees often find it extremely difficult to complain about discrimination or harassment, so be understanding. An employee who sees that you are taking the problem seriously is less likely to escalate the issue to a government agency or to court.
3. Keep Complaints Confidential. The details surrounding a complaint should be kept as confidential as possible. Even though it may be impractical to keep the allegations completely confidential, attempt to keep as many details as quiet as possible. This will prevent employees from taking sides or spreading rumors. Make sure the accuser is aware that the investigation will result in the disclosure of some information. In addition, the EEOC enforces laws that prohibit employers from engaging in retaliatory measures – or adverse actions – against a person that makes a complaint of illegal discrimination or harassment. Make sure your employee feels safe and understands that he will not be fired, demoted, harassed, reassigned, etc. for filing a complaint.
4. Conduct a thorough investigation. Start by talking to the person who complained. Find out exactly what the employee's concerns are and get the details:
- What happened
- Where did it occur
- What was said
- What witnesses were present
Make sure to distinguish fact from opinion. Corroborate the stories of the accuser and the accused by interviewing witnesses present when the incident occurred and by gathering other types of evidence. Evidence can include emails, time cards, schedules, and notes from meetings. Also, be sure to document your investigation and take notes detailing the steps taken. Documentation can include a formal report of your findings or notes that provide details about interviews, discipline imposed on the accused, the reason for not imposing discipline, and conclusion.
5. Take Appropriate Action. Once you have gathered all of the information available sit down and decide what you think really happened. If you conclude that some form of discrimination or harassment occurred, figure out how to discipline the wrongdoer(s) appropriately. In some cases, a suspension, warning or counseling may be adequate. In other situations, when the actions of the accused involve threatening behavior or violence, such as threats, stalking or unwanted and repeated physical contact, termination may be the most appropriate disciplinary action.
In other words, whether an employee comes to you with a seemingly small gripe or a complaint about egregious conduct, you should take the matter seriously and engage in a prompt and thorough investigation.
Note: This post is for informational purposes only and does not serve as legal advice. HRi strongly encourages employers to consult with competent local employment counsel on any issues discussed here.