Someone on your team just came to you with a sexual harassment complaint. What do you do? First, take a deep breath. By doing a little research and reaching out to the right professionals when necessary, you should be able to handle the complaint with sensitivity, respect, and fairness. After all, this stuff is no joke.

Read on for some recommendations on how to deal with the situation without losing your cool.

Step #1: Brush up on what it means

You probably know that sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual advances, but there are actually many more forms it can take. That’s why it’s important to research how the various types of sexual harassment are defined in your state. Below are some basic definitions to help get you started.

  • Visual harassment means making sexual gestures, or showing a colleague inappropriate objects or pictures.
  • Verbal harassment includes making comments, slurs, or jokes of a sexual nature, commenting about someone’s body, or using sexually degrading terms.
  • Physical harassment includes inappropriate touching, blocking someone’s movement, or even assault.
  • Quid pro quo means offering employment benefits in exchange for sexual favors.
  • Retaliatory behavior is when an employee is harassed, fired, or demoted for an activity that’s legally protected, such as filing a harassment or discrimination complaint.
  • Creating a hostile work environment, which is when an employee feels uncomfortable at work because of discriminatory behavior. This can include offensive comments, abuse, or feeling intimidated by someone, and it can interfere with that person’s ability to do their job.

Step #2: Understand the gravity of the situation. Then, respond immediately.

Whatever form the behavior takes, you have an ethical obligation to take any complaint you get seriously. You also have a legal one. It’s a good idea to read up on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and your state laws, like the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. Also, get to know a little about the EEOC, the commission that’s responsible for looking into harassment claims.

Legal codes can sometimes difficult to read and confusing to understand, so make sure to reach out to a legal or employment law professional if you get stuck and don’t know how to apply the laws to your particular situation. Doing the groundwork will help you understand why reporting harassment is so important and it will also highlight your state and federal responsibilities.

Step #3: Handle the complaint conversation confidently (and confidentially)

So you’ve heard the dramatic sentence and it’s time to act. The first thing to know is that you’ve got to take the complaint seriously, no matter who came forward or what they said. Let the accuser know that you’ll take steps to ensure they’ll feel as comfortable as possible during the investigation. Reinforce that any retaliation won’t be tolerated.

One other thing to note—if your employee asks you to keep it confidential, the best answer to this is, “I’ll do what I can.” Why? Because your duty to investigate comes first.

Step #4: Investigate

Here’s rule number one in the harassment playbook: Assign someone experienced, sensitive, and impartial to lead your investigation. As part of a thorough harassment investigation, the lead investigator needs to conduct interviews with everyone involved, from the accused to potential witnesses.

Questions and notes should be super specific and include details like:

  • Dates
  • Times
  • Locations
  • Who else was there
  • Emails, voicemails, and anything else that could help clarify what happened

This handy checklist covers what your investigation should likely include.

Step #5: Keep your workplace comfortable while the investigation is underway

Yep, it can be awkward in the weeks to come. But you, stellar employer you, will keep your work environment as neutral as possible. Communication is key here. Tell the people involved that an investigation is underway, and that you will handle it without taking sides (obviously).

In many cases, you’ll have to ensure some distance between the accuser and accused, whether that means switching teams, changing schedules, or adjusting project assignments. Just make sure these changes aren’t a step down for anyone.

Step #6: Document, document, document

Paper trails aren’t just for taxes. Keep detailed timelines, direct quotes, and every last fact in writing. Here’s why: If an employee isn’t happy with your decision, you’ll want to have backup information about why you came to the conclusion you did.

Then store all of the paperwork in a folder that’s separate from your personnel files and mark it as confidential. We recommend keeping two different folders—one with evidence and one with your notes and analysis. This is important because people could find your notes if the case is ever taken to court. A person’s lawyer could request to see all documents related to the complaint, which would include your confidential notes.

Step #7: Make a decision

Okay, so you aren’t a mind reader or a courtroom judge. All you can do is come to the most informed decision possible with the information you have. What do you know based on the facts? What action could be an appropriate response? Some potential outcomes could be switching teams, conducting sexual harassment training, or even firing someone. It could also mean telling the person who came forward that there just weren’t enough facts for it to be considered harassment.

At this point in the process, it’s often a smart idea to chat with an employment attorney before you communicate your decision, just to weigh in on the call you’ve made.

Step #8: Follow up with everyone involved

Deep breath, the hard part is over. Now let the teammates involved know your decision and what actions you plan to take. In most cases, you’ll still be working together and moving forward from what happened. Therefore, it’s really important to make sure everyone feels safe, respected, and clear on why you made the decision you did.

Step #9: Prevent it from happening again

Your trusty employee handbook isn’t just for describing annual reviews. You can help your team know the consequences of inappropriate behavior by describing your policies here. Here’s what to include:

  • A sexual harassment policy
  • A general harassment policy
  • An overview of how complaints and investigations will be handled
  • A clear statement that retaliation won’t be tolerated
  • Assurance that your company will take quick and thorough action
  • Encouragement for team members to come forward with any complaints
  • An email or even an anonymous hotline telephone number for submitting complaints

Check out example policies like these for help building yours. You may also consider—either for reasons of transparency or because you are legally obligated to—posting your policy in a place where your team will see it often, like in the kitchen or a workroom.

One other failsafe comes from following your sexual harassment training requirements. Some states require that employers with at least 50 employees or contractors offer training, but the details vary depending on where your company is located. Thumb through this quick guide to see what your state says you need to do.

Look at you. You’ve kept it together during one heck of an HR challenge. Thanks to your swift action, your team understands that harassment has zero place at work, and that you tackle complaints fairly. This helps set an important precedent. Every employee has the right to feel completely safe from harassment while doing the amazing things they do.

Elizabeth Robinson Elizabeth is a copywriter with a long history writing for tech and finance. She has an MFA in poetry, a keen eye for misplaced modifiers, and a soft spot for shar-pei mixes like her sidekick, June.
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