Trigger Warning: This article contains material relating to sexual assault and harassment that some readers may find disturbing.
Since the #MeToo movement took the national spotlight, conversations about workplace sexual harassment have become commonplace (check out our article on it here). So what should be done when workplace sexual harassment occurs? We’ll dig into it a little below.
Before we get into the response to sexual harassment incidents in the workplace, let’s take a look at the parameters of sexual assault complaints. Many, many individuals are misinformed about the nature of sexual assault and believe it only encompasses behaviors such as rape or quid-pro-quo advances.
The truth is, sexual harassment is more than unwanted physical contact—it can also be psychological in nature. The term sexual harassment spans an entire range of behaviors that are unwelcome, persistent or offensive in a sexual nature.
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission delineates sexual harassment as:
A number of behaviors fall within this range, including:
Many guides and HR codes of conduct will suggest that the first action should be conducted by the employee—to confront the harasser and explain that the behavior is unwanted.
This is bad advice.
Because of the nature of sexual harassment, assault and workplace power dynamics, harassers often intimidate their victims into silence or gaslight them into believing the behavior is “no big deal.”
Worse, there’s always the possibility of workplace retribution (such as the harasser cutting off the employee by approaching HR first and claiming to be the victim).
Your employees should feel safe to approach your human resources team the moment uncomfortable behavior has occurred. This will allow HR to nip the behavior in the bud before it has a chance to root into the workplace any further.
Employees should (if possible) provide a written statement that includes the date, time and type of incident that occurred. If witnesses were present, they should be included as well.
From the employee’s point of contact, a human resources investigation should begin.
There are several important steps for a manager or supervisor to take when approached with a sexual harassment complaint. These tips should be rules, not guidelines. Failure to act on them can lead to a hostile workplace or legal action.
When conducting the investigation, the HR director has a few specific tasks. These include:
Complete Payroll has all the information and processes you need to establish clear workplace guidelines, conduct investigations and handle these difficult cases. Visit our toolkit page here for more information, or read more about the process at our pillar page.