Dealing with allegations of harassment

Normally I blog about employment law stories in the news, but this post is an exception. For no particular reason I thought I’d share a common question I get when running a course on discrimination and harassment together with the sort of answer I usually give.

Q: What do we do if we receive anonymous and non-specific allegations that a senior manager has been behaving inappropriately towards members of staff?

 A: Well, that’s a good question (I always say this in training courses, they’re paying after all).

It is of course difficult to deal fairly with allegations that are anonymous. But what do we mean by anonymous here? It is one thing if someone has written an anonymous note and left it on your desk, but there is much more you can do if someone makes an allegation and simply tells you that he or she wants their name kept out of it.

In that situation the first step is to gather as much information as you can from the complainant. You need specifics – or at least as much specific information as you can get. Complaints are often very general at this stage, but that is no excuse for ignoring them. You need to dig a bit deeper to find out exactly what is being alleged. You need to then assess the seriousness of the allegation. Are we talking about misjudged banter or serious misconduct? Are there likely to be other people who have experienced the same sort of conduct ?

At this point you may need to discuss whether the individual wants to raise a formal complaint. However, what you do with the information is not entirely up to them. If you have been told that an employee is committing serious misconduct, then whether you do anything about that is not up to the person who told you. Of course you can preserve the anonymity of the complainant, but you also have a duty to other employees. Suppose this complaint is just the tip of the iceberg? If you fail to investigate properly then you are essentially enabling further harassment to take place and quite apart from how awful that will be for the victims, it could also leave you legally liable.

The alleged perpetrator will need to be told of the allegation – though not necessarily given the identity of the accuser. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that they are entitled to be treated fairly and put their side of the case. However, they need to understand that allegations such as this will be treated seriously and thoroughly investigated. Obviously the more specific the allegations the better. Where the allegations are kept anonymous then you need to remember that the individual accused is at a disadvantage. You need to probe carefully for any corroborating details, o any factors which might indicate that the accusations are untrue.

The allegations may, of course, be flatly denied. Denials take many forms. There is the ‘it wasn’t like that, it was just a joke’ denial and there is the ‘that never happened, it’s a fabrication’ denial and there is every shade of meaning in-between. At this stage the decision you need to make is whether you accept the denial and take no further action.

This is a big step. If you just let the matter rest here then the danger is that you will eventually have to deal with much more serious allegations involving many other people  -and the fact that you have done nothing about previous allegations could make things even worse . Before letting the matter rest you should explore all other avenues of investigation and make a very careful assessment. If the allegations strike you as credible – and that’s an important judgement that you have to make (and perhaps later be accountable for) – then you need to carry out a full investigation speaking to colleagues who may have witnessed any of the alleged or similar behaviour.

In other words, you need to either dismiss the allegations as false or carry out as full an investigation as you can and produce a report which may then lead to disciplinary action, depending on the findings you have made. One way or another, you have to decide whether these allegations are true or not and act accordingly. Do not be tempted to just shrug your shoulders and say ‘well its one person’s word against another’ and leave it be.

 That’s the sort of mistake that can really come back to haunt you later.

About Darren Newman

Employment law consultant, trainer, writer and anorak
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4 Responses to Dealing with allegations of harassment

  1. ian abbs says:

    but this is a news story?? – as you will know !

  2. Jo says:

    Training in complaint handling and grievances is important.

  3. I think one of the key points, that employers often face (and which may be an aspect of the current situation facing the Lib Dems) is, as you say, trying to follow up what are often very vague initial allegations. What people who make such allegations need to be clear on is that they are not bound by the “sanctity of the confessional” – if you make allegations, the employer has a duty to investigate them and this might mean you being asked to provide more detail about what you have alleged.

  4. Becky says:

    It is a delicate matter. However, as you said, you can’t just wash your hands of it; I believe investigating the issues is the preferred way.

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