For more information please call  800.727.2766


5 Things Managers Must Know When Handling Harassment Complaints

One of the most challenging aspects of a manager’s job is how to properly respond to and handle harassment complaints. To successfully do this, a manager must be able to navigate company policies, human emotions, and legal landmines. Addressing these issues in a professional and mindful manner is the first step in repairing the work environment and a critical way to minimize risk for both the individual manager and the organization. To this end, let’s examine the top five things managers must know when handling harassment complaints.

WHO should I tell about the issue?

The short answer is look to your company harassment prevention policy and follow what it says. There may be language that states if a supervisor receives a complaint of harassment the supervisor must escalate that complaint to Human Resources, Legal, or Employee Relations. In the absence of specific direction on this point in the policy, your next step is to escalate the issue to the HR manager or business partner who supports your team. The best practice is to have the substance of the conversation verbally, with a follow up email if needed. Be mindful that anything you put in writing is subject to legal discovery, and if you do escalate the complaint via email, IM or text, simply state what was reported to you, who reported it and when it was reported. Avoid including your personal opinions about whether the allegations are true or not, or your personal perceptions of the persons involved.

It’s also important to know who not to tell about the complaint. The best practice is to only tell the person(s) listed in the policy or if your policy does not specify, only report the issue to HR. Discuss with HR whether it is appropriate for you to notify your manager about the complaint. Do not share the complaint with other employees or managers at the company to protect the confidentiality of the process and to respect the privacy of all involved. This strict confidentiality is critical in preserving your credibility as a manager and to minimize the risk of retaliation and defamation claims.

Know WHAT constitutes a complaint and err on the side of caution if you are unsure   

Supervisors are the “eyes and ears” of the company and if a supervisor knows about a potential harassment issue, this means, by extension, the company knows about it. One of the biggest challenges can be recognizing what is a “complaint” of harassment. While some harassment complaints are straightforward, other times a supervisor will learn about the issue informally or even via rumor. Sometimes the issues may be presented in vague terms such as, “I heard that something went down last night on third shift between employee X and employee Y” or “I’m really getting tired of working with employee Y” or “I just want to get some general advice about how to handle something.” Supervisors may need to probe a bit to get a general understanding of the problem. Ask questions such as, “What happened?” or “Can you give me an example of some of the things Y has said to you?” If the behavior described potentially implicates any company policies or you are not sure if a policy violation is at issue, escalate these concerns.

Other common challenges are those situations where a supervisor may initially question whether they need to escalate the matter. The complainant may tell you they do not want the complaint escalated, states that another manager is already aware of the issue or assures you that they will escalate it themselves to HR. Remember, once you know about a potential harassment or discrimination issue, you must escalate it, regardless of the circumstances or requests to not escalate the issue. The best practice in each of these instances is to explain to the complainant that as a manager it is your job to ensure a respectful work environment and you will share the conversation with HR.

The WHEN matters

Timing is a critical component of properly responding to a harassment complaint in several different ways. First, prompt action lets the complainant know that you have heard their concerns and take them seriously. Prompt remedial action is also a key part of an employer’s ability to defend itself in the event the allegations eventually proceed to litigation.

Acting promptly means two things: 1) immediately notifying HR about the complaint so an investigation can begin and 2) taking action to stop any further alleged harassment from occurring by separating the parties. With regard to separating the parties, this could mean having the complainant or respondent work from home, physically distancing the two parties if they work in close proximity to one another, placing the respondent on paid leave for the duration of the investigation, or ensuring the two parties have no further 1:1 interaction during the investigation (either in person, via telephone, or through video conference). The best practice is for managers to partner with their HR partner to jointly decide how to best separate the parties during the investigation.

Know WHERE your lane is and stay in it

A manager’s job is not to investigate the allegations but instead to support the investigative process by being cooperative, responsive, and transparent with the investigative team and monitoring the work environment to address the inevitable interpersonal issues that arise during an investigation. This will likely include adjusting schedules to facilitate employee interviews and providing background information and documentation. A manager should also be prepared to deal with the workplace gossip about the investigation and to field questions about what is going on. Partner with your HR business partner before employee interviews begin to develop talking points and a plan of action so you are prepared to deal with these issues when they inevitably arise.

It’s also imperative that managers be vigilant about preventing and recognizing potential retaliation issues. Each year, retaliation remains the most frequently filed charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). In 2021, 56 percent of all complaints made at the EEOC involved retaliation allegations, the highest in over eleven years.[1] Likewise, complainants and witnesses in internal investigations are usually very concerned about retaliation and may perceive even a subtle shift in behaviors as retaliatory. Managers need to keep a finger on the pulse of their team to make sure that team members are professional and respectful towards one another during and shortly following an investigation and report any concerns to HR. Managers should also partner closely with HR during and after an investigation before addressing any performance or behavioral issues with any employee involved in the investigation to ensure compliance with company policies and that legitimate business reasons support any actions to be undertaken.

Ask WHY? Root cause analysis will lead to a better work environment   

Harassment issues often do not occur in a vacuum. Instead, many times there are underlying issues on the team that enabled the disrespectful behavior to occur or conflict to fester. Following a harassment investigation, it is worthwhile for the manager of the team involved to partner with HR to assess the workplace environment to see if there are opportunities for improvement that will prevent these types of issues in the future or to address any other issues uncovered during the investigation.

Another useful post-investigation tool is to solicit employee feedback about whether the team is comfortable routinely raising concerns or if there are any broader concerns they may have with respect to their work environment vis a vis climate assessments and surveys. Creating a culture where open communication is valued is not only the key to greater collaboration, innovation, inclusion, organizational effectiveness, and engagement, but is critical in the surfacing of employee complaints.

And lastly…. A 6th important item…HOW you respond to a complaint is crucial   

Reporting a harassment complaint to a manager is a very stressful undertaking for most employees. Your response should be professional, unbiased and such that the employee walks away from the conversation feeling heard and with an understanding of what will happen next. The best practice is to thank the employee for coming forward, tell them they did the right thing in letting you know, assure them that you and the company take the complaint seriously, explain that you will be immediately sharing the concerns with the HR team, and explain that the HR team will be in contact shortly to learn more about the issues and discuss next steps. As discussed earlier, do not editorialize, or share any of your thoughts regarding the merits of the complaint and be mindful not to send a complainant back into a situation where additional potential harassment could occur. Also, be sensitive to the employee’s emotional state at the time, and if the employee is upset, consider offering the employee the option of paid leave for the rest of the day or shift.

Managers are at the front line of an organizations’ commitment to building respect and they have a critical role to play in representing the organization, minimizing legal exposure, and administering policy. A manager’s ability to handle complaints, in addition to modeling appropriate behavior and otherwise promoting a respectful and productive environment and culture, is key to an organization’s success.