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Whether small, medium, or large, business owners/managers must take reports of sexual harassment seriously and should already have a plan for dealing with claims of harassment, as well as other types of claims. Planning for the complaint that will eventually come, will also be planning for any potential lawsuit regarding such a complaint.
The first thing is to document everything in a separate file. Create a new file, whether electronic or hard copy, and only cross reference it to the reporting party and alleged harasser. The employer should begin at the beginning before any reports of harassment are received so that such reports are handled in a systematic way. Create a reporting and resolution system that is appropriate to your business. Begin with a log system for capturing the information about the reporting party, the person who is the subject of the complaint and the alleged harasser.
Once a complaint is initially logged the business should determine a plan for investigation, determining who will investigate, how that investigation will be carried out, and what form the ultimate report should take.
Who should investigate is usually determined by looking at the relationship of the subject of the complaint and the alleged harasser. In more serious complaints the investigator should be outside an immediate relationship to either party. But that is part of the art of investigation, determining what complaints are of a less or more serious nature. It is more common than not to have investigations carried out by outside counsel. This ensures that such investigations are handled professionally and best preserves the rights of the business, the accused, and the accuser. Outside counsel are often well versed in the law regarding employment and investigations and should be relied on to properly protect the potential liability of the business. On occasion, when there has been an allegation of assault (actual physical or threatened contact), it is important to get the authorities involved very soon. Often, the negative repercussions of making such a report can be lessened by dealing with the detective division of the authorities rather than the patrol function. Most authorities are open to helping to establish a protocol for response to issues at businesses.
An internal investigation should be carried out with high regard to the privacy of both the accused and the accuser. Witnesses and interviewees should be admonished that further discussion of the investigation will not be tolerated nor will retaliation against either the accused or more importantly, the accuser. While it is impossible to stop the grapevine from gossiping about such events, any gossiping that the management learns about should be dealt with in a firm and evenhanded manner.
The ultimate goal of any investigation is to show that the matter was investigated promptly and properly and that appropriate, and evenhanded, measures were taken at the end of the investigation. Should the claim prove founded then the negative action against the harasser should be the same whether the person is the son of the owner or a brand new hire off the street. If the claim is found to be unfounded then the subject should be treated fairly, unless the claim can be affirmatively determined to be a form of reverse harassment. The key is that there is no retaliation for making a legitimate complaint regarding an allegation of harassment.
Above all, document the complaint, document the investigation and document the outcome of the investigation. Whether a claim turns out to be a he said/she said or something much more serious the business best protects its interests by showing that it takes all claims seriously and handles all claims to a proper resolution.