How to Respond to Workplace Harassment Allegations: An Action Plan
May 17, 2018

 ASIS Security Director Spring 2018by Katherine A. Lemire and Amy R. Foote—Every Security Director should know how to respond quickly and appropriately to sexual harassment claims to protect their company and everyone involved. This article will help Security Directors, as well as Human Resources Managers, and C-Suite executives understand what sexual harassment is and what you should do if you learn of allegations.

Security Directors and their teams are increasingly likely to serve as the initial point of contact for a sexual harassment claim. Knowing how to recognize sexual harassment and knowing how to respond to reports of sexual harassment are essential to protect the accuser and the accused, as well as limit potential liability for the company.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Federal law recognizes two forms of workplace sexual harassment: “quid pro quo” and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when the submission to or rejection of unwelcome sexual conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual. A hostile work environment exists when unwelcome sexual conduct unreasonably interferes with an individual’s job performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment in part as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Off-color jokes, sexually-suggestive compliments about bodies or apparel, unwelcome and insistent invitations, vulgar language, overly familiar touching, standing inappropriately close, and conversations and innuendoes to sex acts or sexuality may qualify as forms of harassment. Sexual harassment can take the form of verbal conversation, texts, emails, social media postings, and shared photographs. When such actions are common in a workplace, they can add up to hostile environment harassment.

What to Do If You Learn of Sexual Harassment

To protect yourself and your company, these tips can help in responding to and preventing workplace sexual harassment allegations.

  1. Hear a Rumor? Don’t Wait. Act Immediately. If there is some kind of allegation — even a hint — don’t wait. Even if it is “just” a rumor, the onus is on you to act on it. Notify your company’s General Counsel or make a report through your company’s established reporting procedure. Stalling in response to complaints and failing to interview witnesses could expose your organization to liability and you could get blamed for dropping the ball. The longer an organization or its supervisors and others in decision-making capacity have known about, allowed, and even fostered harassment without stopping it, the greater the potential liability if litigation ensues.
  2. Preserve evidence. The preservation of key information is absolutely necessary. As a security professional, you may need to identify and preserve relevant evidence, including video and audio recordings. Ensuring you extract and save vital potential proof of harassment also protects your firm against allegations of not fully cooperating — or worse, a cover-up.
  3. Maintain confidentiality. There are many reasons for limiting the number of people who know about a workplace sexual harassment allegation and investigation. First, the subject of the allegation can suffer a tarnished reputation if it turns out he or she did nothing wrong. Second, the complainant is vulnerable and must be protected from disparagement and retaliation. Lastly, as is true for any investigation, the inquiry will far better if it is done discreetly and witnesses are approached without advance knowledge of the subject of the investigation.
  4. Consider an outside investigator. Federal law requires a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation. If the subject of the investigation is a manager, or perceived to have close ties to management, you may have extra challenges in ensuring the investigation is perceived as impartial. Outside consultants with an expertise in harassment investigation may serve to protect you and your company from charges of favoritism and bias.
  5. Know company policies. Your company’s policies may define inappropriate behavior more expansively than federal and local law. Be aware of established reporting procedures to be followed if you witness or hear of workplace sexual harassment. Remember, too, that harassment can occur at off-site, work-related settings such as conferences, meetings, events, and while traveling. Harassment by your company’s outside vendors can also expose you and your company to liability.
  6. Train your staff. A well-designed training program can be a solid first step towards eliminating sexual harassment from the workplace and minimizing damage if harassment occurs despite your best efforts.

Katherine A. Lemire is the President & CEO, and Amy R. Foote is a Managing Director at Lemire LLC. This article is intended for general information purposes and should not be deemed to constitute legal advice.