How Should Human Resources Handle Sexual Harassment?


These days, it’s hard pick up a newspaper or read Google news without hearing stories about sexual harassment or sexual assault. It’s become a widespread topic that needs to be on the forefront of an HR management team’s mind.

Since the news broke of sexual allegations against Harvey Weinstein, approximately one in five Americans have said that they know a friend or close family member with similar allegations of abuse. Even women of Congress have come forward to speak out on this important issue.  As a result, lawmakers are working quickly to come up with legislation. In fact, it’s reported that nearly half a dozen pieces of legislation to increase transparency have been recently created by the House and the Senate.

When dealing with Human Resource management, you already know that workplace harassment based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability violates federal law. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, state and local nondiscrimination laws, a company must do all it can to remedy harassment, discrimination, retaliation and safety. If a sexual harassment issue is known, HR management has a responsibility to investigate. In other words, it’s the duty of the HR Department to not only teach employees about sexual harassment, but ensure that there’s a system in place that takes sexual harassment complaints seriously, and follows up upon them quickly and effectively, without employee retaliation.

How to Handle an Employee Sexual Harassment Complaint?

In studies conducted by Chai Feldblum (commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) two common problems were identified in how to handle an employee’s sexual harassment complaint.

  • Top executives were failing to take sexual harassment or its enforcement seriously
  • Companies are reluctant to punish high performing employees

Problems often boil down to a lack of follow through, rather than a lack of an existing sexual harassment policy or complaint process.  Since HR typically reports to senior executives, when complaints involve executives or are taken up the corporate ladder, the seriousness of the allegations tend to decrease.

When it comes to sexual harassment, it’s recommended that Human Resources become an external independent entity. So that investigations can be conducted properly and a company’s credibility for following through would remain intact.

5 Steps to Take When You Receive a Sexual Harassment Complaint:

  • Conduct a thorough investigation while maintaining the confidentiality of the employee’s complaint.
  • Provide protection to the accuser by separating the accuser and the accused,
  • Explain your anti-retaliation policy to the accuser. Assure them that their allegations will be taken seriously and their responsibility to keep things private.
  • Assign two impartial investigators with the appropriate investigation skills and knowledge of employment law. This allows one to lead the interview and the other to take detailed notes and provide support.
  • Create an HR investigation checklist containing an outline of the issue, witnesses, information and evidence.

The investigation and documentation should be comprehensive. Should the issue be taken to court, your documentation must show that you took the situation seriously and responded timely and appropriately.

If you want additional advice on how human resources should deal with sexual harassment, or need help creating your sexual harassment investigation procedure, The HR SOURCE would love to help.  We provide a service called “HR on Call” which acts as an extension to your HR team by providing access to one of our seasoned human resource professionals. Contact us to find out more.

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