Harassment complaints can blindside business owners, especially if they think that they are leading an ethical company. It’s important, then, that harassment complaints are handled with a high level of sensitivity and care. The treatment of these issues actually starts before a report is even submitted. This means that there are three stages that need to be considered: The before, during and after. 

There are different types of harassment occurring in workplaces, with the main ones being sexual, power, bullying and discrimination. However, when it comes to sexual harassment, even though 4 in 5 Australians have been victims of sexual harassment at some point, less than 1 in 5 have reported it. This highlights a great issue when it comes to responding to harassment complaints. 

Harassment complaints handling

There are a few steps companies can take to create a safe place for employees to speak up and feel assured that their reports will be followed up on. Here are some necessary strategies that can be adopted by businesses:

  • Clear policies on harassment
  • Transparency for submitting complaints
  • Assessment of harassment complaints
  • Confidentiality throughout the process
  • Investigation of harassment complaints
  • Fair and just resolution
  • Learning from the outcomes

Clear policies on harassment

Two policies that are vital for every company are an anti-discrimination and harassment policy and a bullying and harassment policy. This is because they cover a wide range of potential problems a company may need to deal with. They should include issues arising due to racial, religious, age and gender discrimination. The policies should focus on the different types of harassment, including but not limited to:

  • Loss of promotional or career advancement opportunities
  • Unfair or overbearing criticism of someone’s work
  • Exclusion of certain individuals from workplace activities
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Indirect harassment through unrealistic deadlines and workload 
  • Spreading misinformation about an individual
  • Hiding critical information that needs to be shared

The policy should outline that employees who experience this type of behaviour are encouraged to come forward and report it so corrective action can be taken.

Transparency for submitting complaints

In addition to the creation of harassment policies, the organisation should have a clear way of making harassment complaints. This could be through an anonymous complaint line, through a conversation with the HR team or by talking to a manager. Employees should be given directions on what actions they need to take to make a formal complaint or raise a one-off incident they don’t want to see escalating into something worse. 

The company should state that all harassment complaints will be taken seriously and looked into. However, no promises should be made about final decisions, as these should be made after an investigation has concluded. 

Assessment of harassment complaints

If the business has received harassment complaints, then it is advisable that they dig further to figure out the severity of the reports. Did it happen once? Has it been happening frequently? Are any other employees involved? These types of questions can give the company a better idea of what they are dealing with and how big the problem is. 

They can approach this in two ways: 

If the complaint is anonymous, they can respond by asking the individual if they would be willing to share more details. 

If the employee made a direct complaint, their manager or the HR team can reach out for more information and get their consent to look into the incident further. 

The person who will be responsible for finding out more details should be a good listener and non-judgemental. They should make the employee feel comfortable and avoid making any assumptions. They should try to hear both sides of the story before deciding on the next action. 

The company must start documenting the actions they are taking and what happened to the employee.  

harassment complaints

Confidentiality throughout the process

Something that shouldn’t be understated is the importance of confidentiality throughout the whole process of handling harassment complaints. Regardless of whether the complaints lead to an investigation or not, companies must take every step necessary to keep information from leaking to external parties. Confidentiality can protect individuals even after the process has been finalised. 

Without complete confidentiality, the incident may be leaked to other colleagues and can affect the reputation of all parties. Even if a resolution is reached, this may not change how other people feel or think of those who were involved. 

If employees see that information is easily leaked to others, they will be less likely to submit a complaint as well. 

Investigation of harassment complaints

An investigation may be necessary for severe harassment complaints or complaints that didn’t reach an early resolution. The investigation team should be carefully chosen, and you should determine whether an external investigator may be needed. The company will need to collect evidence, interview witnesses, and analyse all the data it has gathered. The information should be enough to paint a precise timeline of events and allow the team to understand what happened. 

It is essential that the person chosen to investigate is impartial and won’t make decisions based on biases. They have to create an environment that facilitates conversation and encourages individuals to share details without feeling pressured or accused.The business should cooperate with the investigator through every stage to avoid delays and misunderstandings. 

An investigation should be kept as a last resort but viewed as a necessary step to achieve a fair outcome. As investigations can be time-consuming and can take up a lot of resources, this is usually where our clients rely on us to fast-track the process. 

Polonious is trusted by many companies worldwide to help investigators create more efficient workflows for accurate but faster outcomes. We assist in automating manual tasks, providing safe storage space for evidence and giving instant progress updates to everyone involved. Through our Simple2Connect integration, our customers can have online interviews and store all relevant notes in our system. If you want to ensure more efficient handling of harassment complaints, reach out and book a demo

Fair and just resolution

Based on the findings of the investigation, the company must take prompt action to close out the case. A team should be assigned to reach a resolution and carry it out. The resolution team will then need to be transparent with all parties and communicate the outcomes of the investigation. They should then explain if disciplinary action will be necessary and why they have chosen to go through with it or not. 

If disciplinary action is needed, the company will be looking at:

  • Warning the employee in writing 
  • Suspending them
  • Relocating the employee
  • Demoting them
  • Retraining them
  • Dismissing them

Some actions are more severe than others, highlighting the need for clear communication and a link between actions and consequences. The people who leave the disciplinary meeting shouldn’t have any further questions and should understand that the severity of the harassment is directly related to the severity of the disciplinary action. 

Even harassment complaints that are proven to be false or inconclusive need to be handled with care. What one person thinks of as harassment may not be the same for another. What matters most is the intentions behind the complaint. 

Learning from the outcomes

Even through the successful handling of harassment complaints, there is still a lot to learn. The business should look back at every decision it made and how much empathy was shown during the process. 

  • Were employees thoroughly informed of every activity relevant to them?
  • Were all employees treated equally?
  • Were staff provided with support resources regardless of their role?
  • Were there any hints of favouritism or bias based on early evidence?

These are only a few questions that can guide the organisation through a review of their processes and make them consider what they could do better in the future. Even something as small as not replying to an email fast enough could have affected the mental health of an individual. 

Taking action on harassment complaints opens up the road to more positive change for the business. It shows employees that the company will take every matter seriously and listen to them with an open mind. 

Continuing to value employees

Harassment complaints can cause liability issues and unnecessary costs for entities. However, the core of a response should be a caring and ethically driven employer. People can tell whether someone is being genuine or not and the drive behind the handling of the complaint will become obvious. Caring and being empathetic can lead to a better workplace and can increase employee trust and loyalty. 

If you are looking to investigate harassment complaints, you are in the right place. Our case management system is built with customers in mind, creating an easy-to-use dashboard and workflows that can be customised to fit any team. Another reason to choose Polonious is our ISO 9001 and ISO 27001 certifications, showing our commitment to providing you with a secure system that prioritises quality over everything. 

Reach out and book a demo today so we can show you how we help our clients fast-track their investigations.