The threat of a workplace or sexual harassment claim, makes most business owners shudder. And the thought of having to handle one is a sure-fired way to feel a spike in your heart rate. It’s so much easier to not think about the possible existence of these issues in your workplace, to be deluded by a dangerous complacency.
Consider this. If you owe a supplier, your debt is settled at some point. However, a workplace conflict which spirals out of control to become a harassment complaint may never be settled. Even if the aggrieved employee leaves the company, the lasting damage to your reputation and that of your company can continue to plague you for years into the future. As a business owner you must deal with it promptly and directly. Because this is one business debt from which your business may never recover.
Many business owners would rather ask someone else to “deal with it”. Perhaps because they feel uncomfortable, helpless and not in control, as opposed to how they feel when running their business. The day-to-day business issues are less emotionally-charged and the solutions are often clearer. In this post we discuss how small business owners must handle a workplace harassment issue, and the steps necessary to protect yourself today and into the future.
Take the complaint seriously from the outset
There are two kinds of complaints: justified and unjustified. However from the point of the view of the aggrieved the complaint is always justified. How you handle it reflects on you and the degree to which you respect your staff. If you want to be respected then no matter your personal feelings, you will take time to listen to the complaint and then gather the background and details around it.
Keep in mind that beneath what you initially understand could be a much deeper, very serious issue. Your obligation as a business owner is to provide a safe workplace to all your employees. It is both your responsibility and your opportunity as the major stakeholder in the business to deal with harassment complaints immediately.
The failure to conduct an investigation leads to a bigger problem.
If you choose to assign one of your employees to investigating the complaint, make sure it is someone knowledgeable about the organization, the employees in the organization, and the history of the organization.
And be aware of the risks of asking a manager in your company to deal with the complaint. The complaint might be minimized, and the assigned manager may not be an objective participant in the process. If the wrong person is assigned to it, and it is not handled properly, it is your company that will be harmed as a result.
These issues carry such hefty penalties when not handled properly that small business owners are best advised to engage an expert – either a lawyer or a good HR consultant or both – and either handle it themselves with the experts coaching the process, or step out of the way and let the expert manage it. Regardless of your approach, act quickly to assure the both the person accused and the accuser that a fair and just investigation will be conducted on their behalf.
Treat the workplace harassment complainant with respect and compassion
It is extremely embarrassing for the employee to file a complaint about workplace harassment. Especially when it is a case of sexual harassment. They feel vulnerable and are afraid to lose their job. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the complaining employee is the victim and not the cause of the problem.
Commit to a plan and adhere to it
Similar to when you are implementing a new business strategy, develop a plan and and all the relevant steps. The steps for your plan should include the following:
- Identify who you will interview
- When interviewing the employee and the accused, ask what happened? What was said? Where did it occur? What was said?
- Look for corroborations and contradictions
- Take thorough notes
- Take active steps to ensure all information remains confidential
- Consult trusted advisors in making a decision
- Share the results of the investigation with the complainant and the alleged harasser, as well as any corrective action that has been or will be taken
Keep in mind that if the investigation is deemed not comprehensive by a Ministry of Labour inspector, a second, or third-party investigation can be ordered at your expense, and expose your business to more compliance scrutiny.
So tapping the expertise of an HR professional to, at minimum, coach you through the process is a prudent strategy.
You will not want this to happen again, and so you must take the following steps to prevent another such conflict:
- Make sure your workplace harassment policy is communicated and understood
- Sign and post the policy in a place visible to all your employees
- Reiterate to all your employees what conduct is considered harassment
- Provide training to assist your employees in knowing what conduct is unwelcome in the workplace
- Give your supervisors and managers additional information/instruction on how to handle a complaint
By following these steps you can avoid debilitating legal costs, and even better, demonstrate to your people and wider community that you are a strong courageous leader who oversees a place where people are proud to work.
Have you seen our infographic on sexual harassment? If not, download your copy here: Workplace Sexual Harassment Sins