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Preventing sexual harassment and handling complaints: The role of HR

Published on June 7th, 2018 by Triton Benefits & HR Solutions

There has been a heightened focus on sexual harassment policies and procedures in the workplace recently, particularly as a stream of accusations continues across the entertainment and political arena. When highly visible situations like these arise, many tend to turn an eye inward at their own company's processes. This is an important step to take, especially for members of the Human Resources team.

As veteran HR professionals and Forbes contributor Tana Session noted, a considerable amount of responsibility falls with HR when complaints of this nature come up in the workplace.

"Human resources professionals are the protectors of the company culture and the purveyors of the corporate conscious," Session wrote. "It is our duty to take every complaint seriously, regardless of the source. Put yourself on the other side of your desk. People just want to feel like they are being heard. If HR professionals can manage that successfully, in my experience, most complaints are resolved rather quickly."

"Employees should understand that actions associated with sexual harassment will not be tolerated."

This is an area that requires sensitivity and the appropriate training. In addition, there are a few best practices and techniques the HR team can use to bolster their handling of sexual harassment complaints and ensure that employees are effectively supported. Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind when considering the role of HR in preventing and dealing with these issues:

1) Make policy information available

As The Balance contributor Susan Heathfield recommended, one of the first steps to take in these regards is to ensure that all staff members are aware of the company's sexual harassment policy. This includes the appropriate training and certification, depending upon industry or business-specific rules. Employees should be able to access these details at all times, and understand that actions associated with sexual harassment will not be tolerated in the working environment, and that these instances will be investigated by the HR team.

2) Offer several ways to file a complaint

One of the most pressing challenges of sexual harassment is that complaints are never filed in the first place, and therefore cannot be investigated and handled by the HR team. It's important that employees are provided with several different avenues for filing a complaint. In this way, the person impacted by inappropriate behavior can feel more comfortable discussing the issue with a company representative.

"Honest and open dialogue between male and female workers, mediated by HR professionals, should occur immediately, without concerns of being classified as 'too sensitive' or 'locker room talk,'" Session noted.

In addition to worker's direct manager, staff members should also be able to bring complaints to the business's CEO or president, another indirect manager, and, of course, members of the HR team.

Man in suit standing behind woman wearing suit sitting at a desk, with his hand on the back of her chair. If an incident takes place in a work setting, employees should have several different ways available to them to report a complaint.

3) Respond swiftly

When a complaint is filed – or if the HR team hears about any incidents ahead of a formal complaint – it's imperative that HR stakeholders respond immediately. Any appearance or situation demonstrating hesitation or disregard on the part of HR could result in legal repercussions. Delays in addressing the issue only serve to worsen the situation.

4) Ensure proper notification and communication

A critical responsibility on the part of the HR team during sensitive instances of this nature includes properly documenting the situation, as well as communications that take place with involved staff members. As the Society for Human Resource Management pointed out, HR stakeholders should create a detailed report that summarizes interactions and the results of the investigation, and provide these findings to company officials. 

In addition to discussing the issue with the person that has made the complaint – and ensuring that he or she is safe from any subsequent inappropriate actions or retaliation for reporting the incident – HR should also speak with the accused individual. Heathfield recommending requesting patience of the accused, and assuring he or she that "a fair and just investigation will be conducted on their behalf as well as that of the accuser."

From here, HR representatives can interview any individuals who may have witnessed the incident. Using open-ended questions during these discussions is best, as it helps interviewers avoid any perceived biases and can better support the search for details that can prove or disprove the accusation.

It may also be helpful to consult with an attorney. This outside, legal perspective can assist HR managers in arriving at a decision about the accusation and associated discipline.

To find out more about the processes involved in handling sexual harassment complaints from an HR perspective, check out this resource from the Society for Human Resource Management, and connect with the experts at Triton Benefits and HR Solutions today.