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How to respond to harassment complaints

Define the Line how to respond to employee complaints. Steps to follow as you help your team supported during the reporting process.

55% of individuals who experienced harassing behavior at work reported it to their direct supervisor (Allvoices, 2021). When it comes to harassment prevention, as a leader, the words and actions you take when an employee confides in you are vital. If done correctly, it can help build long-term trust in both you as a leader and in your organization. Trust in the workplace has many positive impacts like higher productivity, less stress, and more engagement. A win-win-win in our book.

As a leader, it's important to know that when employees are asked what they need in order to feel supported when they report harassing behavior, overwhelmingly the responses have been knowing that action will be taken, having someone actively listen and believe what their reporting, and continuous communication throughout the process.

When an employee comes to you seeking help or is reporting on behalf of others, it's important to build trust. Here are a few guidelines to follow as you help this person feel supported during the reporting process.

Take a pause.

As leaders, we often want to jump right into action. Swoop in with our superhero cape on and save the day. While taking action is key to preventing harassment, there are a few steps we should take before we start coming up with solutions.

Give a sincere thank you.

Of all the people in your organization, this person trusted you. Confided in you. That's a big deal. And a sincere thank you can go a long way. Say something like, "thank you so much for telling me, let's figure out what we can do together to fix this."

Ask if they are willing to share more details.

it takes a lot of courage to speak up and tell someone about the harassing and inappropriate behavior you've been experiencing. Depending on the severity of the situation, the individual person, and many other factors, rehashing the details can bring up an array of emotions. as the person experiencing the harassment, it can oftentimes feel like the situation is out of your control. A simple, "are you okay if I ask you some additional questions?" or "are you willing to share some more details with me." can go a long way.

Get the who, what, when, where, and how.

As a leader, it's important to gather as many details as the person is willing to provide. You don't have to go full-on Sherlock Holmes, but you do need to know who was involved, what exactly happened, when did it happen, where it happened, and any details about how it happened. Be sure to take notes as you gather the information. This will be important for future steps.

Take immediate action if needed.

There will be situations that require immediate action. Your goal is to ensure that everyone on your team is safe. Immediate action may include allowing the person who reported the harassing behavior to leave for the remainder of the day, separating employees, altering schedules, removing customers or vendors from your location, and in some cases, placing the employee(s) on extended leave. What action you take will vary from situation to situation. It's important to work with the person who reported the harassing behavior to see what they are comfortable with and what they need in order to feel supported.

Contact HR or your senior leadership team.

Businesses come in all shapes and sizes. Your next step will depend on the structure of your organization. If you have an HR department it's time to get in contact with them. This step is critical for ensuring that harassing behavior does not continue. Your HR team is there to help support you as a leader, conduct investigations, and keep documentation of what actions were taken. All of this is to help you and the organization ensure that the harassing behavior does not continue. If your organization does not have an HR staff member, it's time to get your senior leadership involved. Even if you've done your best to "handle" the situation, it's vital that your organization has documentation and that there is communication about what has happened.

Set up a communication plan with the employee(s).

One of the easiest ways to build trust with your employee(s) is constant communication and check-ins throughout the process. Before you end your conversation, be sure to set expectations for communication. "I'll be in contact with you in ________ hours/days." Many leaders fail to give updates to their employees or check in on their well-being. A simple, "we're still working on an investigation" and "is there anything else that we can do for you right now?" can be extremely beneficial. Even if you've handed off the report to HR or senior leadership, you should still communicate and check in with your employee(s) frequently.

Explain what retaliation is and what employees should do if it happens.

Retaliation, which by the definition means revenge, can come in many forms to those involved in reporting harassment. It's important that your employee(s) understand what retaliation is so they can better identify it when it occurs. Examples of retaliation include receiving a poor job evaluation that's not tied to actual performance, reducing or changing an employee's schedule, being threatened, making the person's job more difficult, and more.

The investigation begins.

Because you looped in HR and senior leadership (see above), an investigation should take place. As a leader, you'll be responsible for communicating with the employee, checking in to see how they are doing, and answering questions that they have along the way.

Celebrate the complaint.

We're not celebrating that someone experienced harassment and had to report. We're celebrating that your employee felt comfortable enough to come forward with a report. It means that your team trusts you, knows that action will be taken, and is taking steps to make the workplace more safe and secure for everyone. That's a big win in our books.

Want to learn additional leadership skills and best practices for preventing harassment in the workplace? Attend an upcoming training and become an ally in your workplace.

Define the Line is on a mission to empower employees to speak up, create positive change, and end workplace harassment once and for all.

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