Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Best Practices for Employee Complaints and Employer Responses

In a recent article, Anne Litwin posited multiple reasons why sexual harassment is still prevalent in the modern workplace. Many employees may not know how to report harassing behavior or, worse yet, they may fear the consequences of doing so. What should an employee do to report inappropriate conduct or behavior by a supervisor or co-worker? And, how should an employer respond to an employee's harassment complaint? Here are several best practices for both employees and employers.

Best Practices for Employees

First, you must report the alleged sexual harassment to the appropriate individual designated by your employer, usually a human resources representative. If the person to whom the complaint should be reported is the alleged harasser, you should report the alleged harassment to the next person up the chain of command.

Second, you should provide a written statement detailing the allegedly inappropriate and harassing conduct, behavior, and comments.

Third, request that an investigation be performed and that disciplinary action be taken against the alleged harasser.

Finally, follow-up up with human resources regularly, and maintain an open line of communication, cooperating throughout the complaint-resolution process.

Best Practices for Employers

First, you must take each complaint seriously, even if the complaint is voiced by an employee who habitually complains of mistreatment or harassment.

Second, if there are any doubts whatsoever, conduct a prompt and thorough investigation.

A variety of issues need to be considered before and during a sex harassment investigation. For instance, consideration should be given to selection of the investigator (e.g., in-house counsel, outside counsel, a human resources consultant, or an in-house human resources representative), whom to interview, in what order the interviews should be conducted, and where the interviews should be conducted. Consideration should also be given to how the company has performed these investigations in the past, what policies may apply, what confidentiality issues need to be observed, and what interim action, if any, may be necessary (e.g., placing the alleged harasser on paid administrative leave).

Third, ensure that a thorough and objective report is prepared that details the investigation, the facts uncovered, and the ultimate conclusions reached.

Fourth, take prompt action in response to and in accordance with the results of the investigation, including following up with the complainant.

Fifth, preserve the investigation materials in a separate investigative file that is marked as "confidential," not in any employee's personnel file.

Finally, never, under any circumstances, take any retaliatory action against an employee who in good faith reported suspected sexual harassment.

While these best practices won't always prevent sexual harassment from taking place, they can help empower employees to report allegedly inappropriate conduct -- something every employer wants to avoid in the workplace -- and help employers avoid liability by taking prompt, remedial action to meritorious complaints.

If you are an employee who has been subjected to sexual harassment, or if you are an employer facing an employee's sexual harassment complaint, contact us to find out how we can help you.