Workplace Harassment and Discrimination
Posted by Andreea Hrab
Harassment and discrimination complaints are among the most sensitive and difficult issues for HR professionals to handle. When a harassment or discrimination complaint is made, the HR department must act quickly and professionally to resolve the matter in a way that’s satisfactory to the employee presenting the complaint and protects the company from possible litigation.
One of the more difficult aspects of these kinds of complaints is confidentiality. Private information communicated by an employee to the HR department must be kept confidential. At the same time, if an employee comes forth with a harassment or discrimination complaint, steps must be taken to investigate the claim. And this may mean having to disclose some of the employee’s confidential information.
What if an employee makes a claim of harassment or discrimination, but asks that no action be taken to investigate it? This presents quite a challenge, since, while you must consider the employee’s request, you also have a responsibility to the company and to all of the employees to fully investigate any and all complaints. And even if it’s requested, HR shouldn’t promise complete confidentiality, since investigating the complaint usually means involving other employees and managers. You should let the employee know that the HR department is responsible for investigating the complaint, not only in order to resolve the issue at hand, but also to help others who may be having similar experiences. However, you can assure the employee that confidential information will only be shared on an absolute need-to-know basis.
One of the most sensitive complaints is that of sexual harassment. The HR department must make sure that employees feel they can come forward if they feel they have been sexually harassed at any point, and to treat these complaints with the utmost sensitivity, confidentiality, and professionalism.
You also need to make sure that no discrimination occurs because an employer wishes to avoid potential sexual harassment complaints. For instance, an employer in a traditionally male-dominated industry such as construction, mining, or drilling, may be wary of hiring female workers for fear of facing sexual harassment complaints that could arise from a woman in an all-male environment. HR must tread carefully here, since not hiring women for this or any reason is considered discrimination and is illegal according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), because it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Discrimination and harassment are harmful to employees and to the company. One of the most important tasks for HR is to work to prevent these types of complaints, and, if and when they occur, to know exactly how to handle them.
To help avoid these kinds of problems, HR departments should consider taking the following preventative actions.
- Establish a clear harassment policy. Developing and distributing a company policy on discrimination and harassment to all employees, perhaps as part of their onboarding and in their employee handbooks, will make it clear that the company will not tolerate discrimination or harassment, that every claim will be investigated fully, and that wrongdoers will face severe consequences, including termination.
- Set up clear procedures. Establish a clear procedure for filing complaints, so that employees know exactly what to do if they are faced with such a situation. Also, it’s important to clearly outline a process for investigating and resolving complaints.
- Train employees, supervisors, and managers. It’s critical that all of the company’s employees know they have the right to work in an environment that’s free from discrimination and harassment, and that they fully understand the company’s policies on these issues.
If a discrimination or harassment complaint is filed, there are several things that HR departments should do.
- Really listen to the employee filing the complaint, without judgment.
- Don’t dismiss the complaint simply because you don’t think the type of behavior described is possible or could be happening at your company.
- Recognize that a complaint could involve harassment and/or discrimination based on a number of factors such as gender, race, age, sexual orientation, etc.
- Take all complaints seriously; even if the employee has made complaints in the past. Each and every complaint should be taken seriously.
- Never retaliate against the accuser—it is against EEOC law. Forms of retaliation can include demotion, pay cuts, different treatment, termination, etc.
- Keep the complaint confidential and only share information when and with whom it is absolutely necessary.
- Take action quickly, and begin an investigation as soon as the complaint is filed.
- Conduct a thorough investigation of any complaint, by interviewing the parties involved and any potential witnesses, and gathering and examining evidence.
- Keep a full record of the investigation, detailing the steps taken, interview results, and the final decisions made and actions taken.
- Consider hiring a outside party to conduct the investigation, such as a law firm or consulting agency. Their experience can be useful especially when you are dealing with high-profile situations or when there’s a potential for criminal charges.
- Enforce the appropriate disciplinary action if the investigation proves that the accused employee did in fact engage in discriminating or harassing behavior. This may range from a warning or suspension to termination of employment and/or criminal charges.
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Andreea is an experienced HR professional, with a specialized background as HR in IT companies. Her areas of expertise are: recruiting, retention and company promotion. She is experienced in designing and implementing policies, procedures, and motivational programs, in coaching new hired/promoted managers and mentoring HR new employees.