13 December 2017

Five steps to investigating sexual harassment allegations effectively and sensitively


Arran Heal

Arran Heal

Arran Heal is managing director of CMP Resolutions, a workplace conflict management consultancy


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As the EHRC requires FTSE 100 firms to explain their procedures for handling sexual harassment claims, conflict management expert Arran Heal offers advice for putting an appropriate response process in place

With the Christmas party season underway, the Equality and Human Rights Council (EHRC) has written to FTSE 100 firms to ask them to supply evidence of safeguards they have put in place against sexual harassment, and to warn them that legal action will be taken if it is found that they haven’t taken suitable steps.

The great majority of HR departments will say they have a well-established system to deal with complaints. Sexual harassment on any level is obviously not tolerated. But this isn’t what the EHRC is asking about.

Most complaints aren’t reported (US studies have found that only between 6% and 13% of individuals who experience harassment file a format complaint). Employees aren’t aware of complaint processes, and aren’t given any help or training to make use of them. Despite the procession of high-profile cases and a new environment of awareness, there’s still an essential fear of not being believed in the first place, of recriminations, and of turning what might feel like a minor situation into something major and career-threatening.

The EHRC wants reassurance that employers are ready to deal with difficult, sometimes complicated, cases of sexual harassment in messy practice. We’ve reached a situation that is past the stage of just talking about principles.

HR professionals need to be able to prove they’re able to respond quickly, and not flap around awkwardly, inadvertently confirming employees’ worries about coming forward. There needs to be the capability on hand to undertake an independent, impartial investigation, and a robust process that can be initiated immediately. Delays, prevarication and clumsy conversations most often turn an alleged harassment case into an incident with shockwaves felt across an organisation. Here are five steps HR practitioners can take now to ready themselves and their organisation should a sexual harassment allegation be made.

1. Be proactive in encouraging openness and communication

As a starting point, HR professionals need to ask whether their systems and approach are fair and just: do they lead to the kind of confidence that encourages a victim to come forward? Having a ‘clear air’ culture in the workplace is important for supporting good working practices as well as helping minor issues come to the surface and be resolved early. It also acts as a fundamental way to discourage inappropriate behaviour, pressures and secrecy.

2. Ensure there are clear policies in place

A knee-jerk response isn’t going to help. It’s important to consider the system to be followed, who’s responsible, and what expertise is on hand. Who’s going have the initial conversation with the employee making an accusation – HR or the line manager? – and do they have the skills to cope? Mediation can be useful in preventing an escalation of situations, but are there trained staff to do this? Or is there an external partner you can rely on?

3. Make sure the investigation is watertight

There are many risks associated with mishandled investigations. There is the potential for investigations’ conclusions to be challenged, for claims of bias to lead to employment tribunals, for collapsed cases and humiliation; the cost of extensive management time up to senior levels; cases that keep running over long periods; not to mention the long-term impact on staff morale, relationships and the work environment. Investigations need to be formal in terms of how they are organised, carried out and reported on, and they need to be proportionate with the alleged offence – ie, the more serious the allegation, the more evidence should be gathered, the more witnesses called and paths of inquiry followed to their logical end.

4. Be aware of the risks involved with using internal staff for investigations

Even if senior managers are brought in from a different department, and are not associated with the member of staff involved, there are always going to be loyalties and sympathies that cloud decision-making. Investigations run with internal resources tend to be slow (because they rely on the availability of busy senior staff), which can prolong anxieties and act as a barrier to victims (who may not want to discuss the experience or, after a time, even participate in an investigation). Training in fair decision-making can be needed among panel members involved in the investigations and resolving situations.

5. Build your confidence, resilience and reputation

Making use of external expertise to run investigations into complex cases is invaluable in resolving situations, and to ensure that the employer is known and respected for its professional handling of difficult, sometimes ugly situations – that it’s known to be open, fair and reasonable in all its dealings. Your response must also be accepted by all parties to be even handed.