Despite your best efforts at prevention, there is the possibility that workplace harassment can still happen. There may be fewer instances or less severe cases, but it is likely that there will still be the occasional instance of harassment that pops up with the best prevention measures. It is also possible that the prevention measures that are put into place can cause existing victims of harassment to come forward for help. Either way, any harassment that occurs in the workplace needs to be addressed. Taking action against any form of harassment means that you have to do things right and with a certain amount of caution in order for there to be a positive outcome.
This article will look at the steps that a business can take when addressing an instance of harassment in the workplace. Not all cases will follow these steps and some may require that more be done in order to reach a satisfactory conclusion. As with a reporting system, a business can set up their own methods of addressing harassment and this can simply act as a guide to get things going.
One of the first things that should be done in addressing harassment is to review any reports or complaints that have been filed by the victim or against the harasser. In some cases, there may be multiple reports related to the situation or multiple reports tied to the harasser if they have an established history. You want to find out what the situation and the nature of the complaint are early on in order for things to progress smoothly. Any complaints that come in should be addressed as soon as possible; ignoring complaints, even accidentally, can be interpreted by the reporter as a dismissal of their issue.1 Whomever has been put in charge of the reporting system and/or handling complaints should begin reviewing complaints as they come in. If possible, try to keep the review time somewhere within a few days of the claim's filing to ensure that things are being addressed promptly.
The Course of the Investigation
If there seems to be some validity to the claim, then steps to investigate the allegations often begin. Even if there isn't enough in the report to warrant an investigation or if there's a lack of information, it should still be followed up. This can simply be done by contacting the person who filed the report and asking them questions-try to fill in any details or get clarification before formally tabling the complaint and moving on. A mini investigation, if you will.
If it's decided that things should be looked into further and an investigation opened, then there are a few things that need to be addressed. Whoever is doing the investigation-be it an employee or a hired professional-the following should be included to some degree:
Any kind of disciplinary action or solutions to a harassment allegation are usually decided upon when the investigation comes to a conclusion. Outcomes will vary from case to case, so not every accused harasser will end up being fired or even having any kind of punishment directed at them. It may be discouraging, but not every allegation is confirmed as truth; things like a lack of evidence or cooperation from the affected parties can cause a complaint to be dismissed and no solution made. That should be kept in mind with every complaint or report made, but it should not discourage anyone from making a complaint or starting an investigation.
If it is determined that there was wrong doing and that the harasser is guilty, per se, then the appropriate actions should be taken. Disciplinary actions can range anywhere from termination of employment to moving them to a different part of the business, depending on the situation. The solution should be appropriate and should fit to the severity of the case.5 For example, a harasser who has been stalking his victim in and outside of work for several months should get far more than just a simple warning. Likewise, the one-time use of a derogatory joke that has already been apologized for and remorse shown should not result in termination.
It is also recommended that there should be multiple solutions available if possible. There may be actions that the victim may want to take-like a lawsuit against their harasser-or the harasser may offer to leave or transfer on their own.7 Having a 'Plan B' so to speak or just another option in place for discipline can also be a good thing when there are complications with the case. For instance, if the harassment was severe enough that police were involved (e.g. rape, assault, etc.), the outcome of that investigation may impact the one conducted by the company. The business should not necessarily hold off on looking into things because of a legal investigation, but it should take into account that there might be a different outcome in one verses the other.
When the investigation is concluded and a solution has been found, those who were involved in the case should be notified. They don't necessarily have to be told all of the details, like what the punishment is and when it's going to happen, unless they are one of the main parties but they should still be alerted that a conclusion has been reached. It's more curtesy than anything, as they should be kept abreast of the situation due to their involvement. Not all punishments or solutions are going to be publicized-even to the victim-so not saying anything may seem like the situation just disappeared.
Preventing Further Cases
When everything's done with and all the appropriate parties have been addressed, there may be some consideration as to how these circumstances could be avoided. In a way, every harassment case could be treated as a learning tool in prevention, albeit a rather undesirable one. Many companies will look at a case of harassment and look at what could have been prevented based on current policies and what occurred because there wasn't anything in place against it. They use the information gathered in the investigation as a way of measuring the efficiency of their anti-harassment policies-what worked, what didn't, what needs improvement, etc. Taking that information and looking closely at it can help prevent further cases from happening. It's self-reflective and it can be greatly beneficial to potential victims of harassment.
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