5 Steps to Get in Front of Sexual Harassment Complaints at Your Company

Ladan Nikravan Hayes


When an employee complains that he or she is experiencing sexual harassment of any type, you as an employer have a legal, ethical and employee relations obligation to thoroughly investigate the charges. But according to a new CareerBuilder survey, the majority of victims continue to keep quiet. Of those who have been sexually harassed, the majority (72 percent) did not report the incident and more than half (54 percent) did not confront the offender.

Those who did not report the sexual harassment stayed quiet because they didn’t want to be labeled a troublemaker (40 percent), said it was their word against that of the accused(22 percent) or were afraid of losing their jobs (18 percent). On the other hand, of those who did report it, 76 percent said the issue was resolved – 29 percent said the person stopped the harassment and 21 percent said the person was fired. 

Victims Across All Levels

More than 1 in 10 workers (12 percent) say they have felt sexually harassed in the workplace, with women (17 percent) more likely to feel harassed than men (7 percent), and those between the ages of 18 and 34 reported being targeted the most (17 percent).

When asked who they were harassed by, employees pointed to a number of statuses and positions. Twenty-eight percent of those who have felt sexually harassed at work said they were sexually harassed by their boss, and nearly 2 in 5 (37 percent) said they were sexually harassed by more than one person. Overall, those who felt harassed said the person(s) responsible for the harassment held these positions:

  • Peer: 60 percent
  • Manager or supervisor: 36 percent
  • Client: 9 percent
  • Senior management: 8 percent
  • Vendor: 5 percent
  • Direct report: 3 percent

How to Legally Handle an Employee Sexual Harassment Complaint

This has always been true — perhaps even more so today as sexual harassment debates rage on in the public eye — but you need to take every reasonable step to prevent harassment from occurring in your workplace. It’s also imperative to right any wrongs that may have occurred. That means investigating harassment complaints and promptly intervening.

Below are five steps you can take right now to prepare your company to prevent or remedy sexual harassment in the workplace.

Before a complaint is filed, put a policy in place: An important component of harassment prevention is the creation and dissemination of a sexual harassment prohibition policy and reporting procedure. This policy is critical because under federal case law, an employer fulfills its obligation if it takes all reasonable steps to prevent harassment before it occurs, and to take effective steps to remedy harassment after it takes place. If an employer demonstrates those attempts at prevention and remediation, it might not be found liable for the act of harassment itself.

Understand the law: Employers can’t properly address employee complaints about sexual harassment without first understanding federal and state employment laws about discrimination and harassment. An employer’s initial responsibility is to research laws that apply to the employment relationship and to learn what constitutes discrimination and harassment.

Create a safe space: Talk withthose who complain. Guarantee that they are safe from retaliation and provide reassurance that they took appropriate action in reporting the incident or general situation regardless of the results of the investigation.

Document everything: Every investigation should be documented with the worst-case scenario in mind ― that is, the investigator facing cross-examination in front of a jury about every sentence in the investigation report. Reports should be thorough and thoughtfully written.

Make necessary changes: Based on all of the documentation and advice from colleagues and your attorney (should you use one), make decisions about whether sexual harassment occurred. Provide the appropriate discipline to the appropriate people, based on your findings. Make adjustments or reassign work as needed.

Take your policies one step further and learn from these high-tech firms how to ensure more gender diversity in your company.


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