Q: Where I work, we do not have an HR Manager, so I am the “HR Department” (business owner, office manager, etc.). I had a complaint about an employee who works at the company, and I have never investigated a sexual harassment incident before. I have the complainant’s statement, but I have not spoken to the subject of complaint(s). I don’t really know how to handle this and what I need to do next. Any help would be appreciated!!
A: First off, take a deep breath! We know these are tough situations to handle and manage. We understand that conducting internal investigations, especially when you’re not directly responsible for “all things HR” can be challenging. For the purposes of this Q&A, you will be referred to as the “HR Administrator”. Therefore, here is some guidance to help you navigate a complaint of sexual harassment in an effective and timely manner:
The initial step is crucial: Ensure the complainant’s statement is acknowledged by letting them know the allegation will be kept confidential and taken seriously. In your role as an HR Administrator, gather as much information as possible from the complainant by meeting with them to discuss the written or verbal complaint. This includes the details of the incident(s), dates, times, locations, and any potential witnesses. Cover the five (5) W’s and the H which means create questions that cover the: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.
Your next step is to inform your immediate supervisor, higher management, or general counsel about the complaint. This is especially important since you are the “de facto HR Administrator”. Transparency and collaboration with management will ensure the process proceeds appropriately. At this time, we would suggest you determine if you are the best person to manage this investigation. Consult with an HR professional or employment attorney, as needed. Ensure that the process will be conducted professionally and free from any preconceived judgments. This underscores the importance of involving a third party. You will want to minimize any perception of a conflict of interest by taking lead in the investigation if there is a bias.
Following the meeting with the complainant and informing those who need to know about the actual complaint, the next step is to meet with the employee who is the subject of the complaints. Again, this meeting should be face to face (in-person or virtual). Be sure to prepare your questions in advance to structure your interview with the subject. Ensure confidentiality, no retaliation, and that your questions are unbiased. It’s essential to conduct a fair and impartial investigation. Structure your questions to allow them to provide their side of the story and gather any relevant evidence they might have to tell you at this time. If there are any witnesses mentioned, follow up with them and capture their details. Document every interaction and piece of evidence meticulously. At all times reminding and assuring people of privacy, confidentiality, and no retaliation.
It is important to remain neutral during the entire process and at the same time be supportive of both parties throughout the process. This is done by maintaining open lines of communication with both the complainant and the subject of complaints. Let them know that their concerns and well-being are a priority. Offer resources such as counseling or support groups as needed. Equally as important is ensuring the safety of each person involved, be sure to review their comfort level to continue working together, if required. This might include talking through options with an experienced HR professional consultant or employment attorney.
After you have gathered all your facts and details, if you are unsure about how to proceed next with the investigation, do not hesitate to seek guidance. If there are any questions or concerns with the facts collected, consult with an employment attorney or an experienced HR professional consultant. Remaining neutral and unbiased is paramount to evaluating the facts and determining the outcome and conclusion.
Once the investigation is finalized, compile a comprehensive report with your findings, evidence, and conclusions. Management can then decide on the appropriate action if any will be required. However, final determinations may be case-by-case and the result may involve disciplinary measures or other necessary steps. At this juncture, you may decide to seek out an experienced HR professional consultant or employment attorney to review the findings, solutions, and recommendations before concluding. Then you need to communicate to both the complainant and the subject of complaints to reflect the investigation is complete.
In many cases, additional findings may include coaching, updating employee handbooks, and/or training on conducting investigations for yourself or someone else within the organization to ensure better management of situations that arise in the future. HR Answers is offering a session on Tuesday, November 28. Register Here.
Remember that conducting internal investigations is challenging and creates discomfort within the organization, however, equally invaluable to your business is managing them successfully. Seek guidance when unsure, maintain professionalism, and ensure fairness to all parties involved. Your commitment to handling these situations conscientiously is vital in creating a safe and respectful workplace as well as mitigating risk.