How to Protect Your Company from a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Does the thought of a sexual harassment complaint at your workplace leave your stomach in knots? In 2018, 13,055 sex-based harassment allegations were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), this does not include charges filed with the state or local Fair Employment Practice Agencies. Is your organization prepared for an emergency harassment situation?

Diverse team collaborating over a laptop in a bright office setting.

Sexual harassment in the workforce is not only challenging; it can cost companies millions of dollars. In 2017, Reuters reported that 21st Century Fox reached a settlement of $90 million in derivative claims of sexual harassment against Fox officers and directors. While 21st Century Fox did not admit wrongdoing in agreeing to the settlement, the company vowed to enhance governance as well as to ensure a proper workplace environment, bolster training, and further the recruitment and advancement of women and minorities.

Before your organization becomes another statistic, let’s talk about how to prevent this from happening in the first place.

Handling Sexual Harassment Proactively

In 2017, the #MeToo movement empowered millions of individuals to end their silence on sexual harassment. The hashtag went viral, and the movement spread like wildfire. Sexual harassment became a leading topic throughout America as many business leaders and organizations were exposed. With awareness of sexual harassment at an all-time high, employers have an affirmative duty to take reasonable steps to prevent and prepare for a potential sexual harassment claim in the workplace.

Luckily, there are preventative measures you can take to protect the safety of your company. Let’s review some of these:

  • Have a written, published sexual harassment policy
  • Follow compliant harassment policies to maintain safety in the workplace
  • Provide annual sexual harassment training covering all required topics
  • Establish a role that oversees the training and processes sexual harassment complaint
  • Decide who will present your company’s safety policies (this could be your company’s legal team or HR department)
  • Post a Sexual Harassment poster along with a Transgender Rights poster in a noticeable and accessible location in the workplace
  • Provide an information sheet to employees with instructions on how to contact the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in case of sexual harassment conduct

Getting the Ball Rolling

 You may take all the proper preventative measures, yet still receive a sexual harassment complaint. There is no need to panic, but it is imperative to take appropriate action to ensure the rest of the process runs smoothly and properly. Managers and supervisors must take all accusations seriously.

Before any action is taken, employees must file a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although the specific information is confidential, the EEOC must notify the employer of the claim within 10 days of the filing date. After a complaint is filed, managers and supervisors must deal swiftly and fairly with allegations.

Here is a list of legal steps to help guide you through the early stages of a sexual harassment claim:

  • Begin investigating right away
  • Ensure that the employee is safe from the alleged harasser and confirm that their information is confidential
  • Immediately inform HR of every allegation
  • Review the appropriate documents and evidence
  • Decide whether the accused employee should be on paid administrative leave during the investigation
  • Take interim protective measures if needed. These can include no contact, changes to schedules, suspensions and reassignment
  • Understand business goals such as minimizing business risks, identifying weaknesses and removing certain individuals from the company
  • Attempt to restore any lost employment benefits or opportunities and prevent the recurrence of the misconduct
  • Prepare for possible civil or criminal litigation

Putting the Pieces Together

When there is a sexual harassment allegation in your workplace, begin interviewing everyone involved, including witnesses. Interviews should be conducted at a specified private location. Conducting a thorough investigation for a sexual harassment claim allows protection of your organization and all parties involved.

A proper interview process will include:

  • Creating a list of everyone involved, including any witnesses
  • Taking notes during interviews
  • Documenting the notes on a secure company database

Baseline questions are a great interrogation tool to start with. These questions include asking individuals basic questions, such as where they live, what their hobbies are, and so on. It is important to observe body language, speech patterns and eye movements of everyone involved as you conduct interviews.

Once the interview process is complete, ask the employee to prepare their own written statement of the incident. If the employee is unwilling, ask them to read your interview notes and sign them to acknowledge that the contents are consistent with what they communicated.

Assessing the Situation

Now that you have the information, summarize your analysis in a detailed report.

The report should include pertinent information such as a clear timeline of events before during and after the incident, a list of people involved including a credibility assessment for each individual, and any important evidence and documents in the case (emails, text messages, etc.).

The report should also show company guidelines and protocols, and information on any financial impact to the organization.

Furthermore, include the company’s response to the situation including settlement information and any left-over information including unresolved issues.

Keep the report short and simple when you can. Avoid jargon. Make sure to edit your report and read it out loud to catch any errors. Mistakes can disrupt the outcome of the case, so it is important to be clear and concise.

Determining Disciplinary Action

Be sure to go over your employee discipline policy before taking any action. If the investigation confirms that sexual harassment did occur and that discipline is warranted, the human resources department should choose an action that is proportional to the seriousness of the offense. Appropriate discipline will help prevent future harassment and retaliation. Possible forms of discipline range from verbal and written warnings, to termination, to lawsuits.

In some cases, however, the employer may be held liable. There are various circumstances where managers, supervisors, and organizations can be held responsible for sexual harassment. These include:

  • When the supervisor or manager commits sexual harassment
  • When an employee performs an act of sexual harassment against another employee and a supervisor or manager should have known about the conduct, unless the manager can show that timely and appropriate action was taken
  • When a non-employee performs an act of sexual harassment against an employee and a supervisor or manager knew or should have known and no action was taken

All supervisors and managers should be aware of and trained on sexual harassment policies to avoid serious company penalties, such as lawsuits or termination.

Concluding Your Investigation

When closing out an investigation, it is important to analyze your data, conclude your case and continue to follow up with all parties. All parties should feel safe and comfortable at work, so keep an eye out for future misconduct or retaliation. All employees should be educated on sexual harassment policies and procedures to avoid sexual harassment in the future.

Follow these steps at the end of your investigation:

  •  Let the employees who were involved in the investigation know that it has been finalized and that your company has taken the appropriate action
  • If employees feel that the investigation was not handled properly, be sure your company provides the appropriate complaint escalation procedure
  • Make it known that your company prohibits retaliation
  • Follow up with all parties at the following intervals: two weeks, one month, six months and one year

Next Steps

Being knowledgeable about sexual harassment could help save your staff from mistreatment, protect your organization’s reputation and save your company millions of dollars. KnowledgeCity’s online courses make protecting your business simple. Properly handling complaints and knowing your responsibilities are both essential to keeping your organization safe. Protect your business and be proactive with easy-to-use online training, designed to help you identify and prevent misconduct in your organization.

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