Human Resources News & Insights

Handling sexual harassment when the offender’s the big boss

How should you respond if an employee accuses one of your company’s leaders of sexual harassment?

Progressive Women’s Leadership shares important insights to this and many other issues in its e-guide, “Women Leaders Share What’s Working: New Ways to Prevent Sexual Harassment.”

Here’s a sneak peek from Chapter 2:

If a company executive (e.g., your boss) is accused of harassment, it can put you and your company in a very difficult spot.

Suddenly, you’re faced with having to investigate an individual you report to, right? Well … maybe not, if you take some preemptive steps.

It all starts with coming up with a plan for how you (and your company) will react … before you have to.

Here are some best practices to implement now, as recommended by employment law attorneys and experts on harassment prevention:

1. Create a protocol

It’s unlikely an executive would sign off on an investigation of him/herself, so it’s often smart to create a protocol that automatically kicks in should an executive be accused of harassment.

Some things your company may want to have the protocol state:

  • What will trigger an investigation – such as when the accused or the complainant is a company executive or owner.
  • What will happen when the investigation is over – i.e., When will the findings result in a suspension or termination? (Remember, if guilty, a harasser doesn’t have to be fired as long as what you do effectively prevents or stops the harassment.)
  • An impartial, outside firm will conduct the investigation (it can help to already have the firm picked out or on retainer).

Putting a protocol like this in place sends the message up the ladder that harassment won’t be tolerated at any level.

And that kind of message can also trickle down through an organization in a very positive way.

2. Give employees multiple outlets to report harassment

When harassing behavior comes from a direct supervisor or a person in a position of power, employees are more reluctant to complain out of fear of retaliation.

So give employees multiple people they can go to with complaints (perhaps including a third-party investigative firm) and multiple avenues to issue complaints that executives can’t access (such as an online portal or phone hotline).

To use these resources to the fullest, the EEOC recommends those responsible for receiving complaints:

  • know to take all complaints seriously
  • are trained not to retaliate and know consequences of retaliation
  • understand/maintain confidentiality
  • have authority to initiate investigations, and
  • document everything – from intake to investigation to resolution.

3. React promptly, consistently

Prompt action is key to preventing further damage. This includes not only in launching the investigation, but also in handing out discipline.

If an investigation does result in discipline, it can also pay to follow up with the accuser(s) to find out if they feel the company’s actions are effectively preventing or stopping further harassment.

One final key: To avoid the appearance of favoritism, make sure executives are treated the same as employees when it comes to conducting an investigation and disciplining (or firing) the accused.

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