By Molly Wood, SPHR. SDEA HR Consultant
We have been training our managers, training our employees, and doing our best to create a company culture where harassment is a thing of the past. And yet in 2021, Marelli, a lighting manufacturer for the automotive industry will pay $335,000 and provide other relief to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Two McDonald’s employees in Florida have filed a $500M class action lawsuit, accusing the fast food giant of fostering “systemic sexual harassment”. Google settled a harassment claim which includes $310 million devoted to new diversity, equality and inclusion measures.
If this is happening in large organizations where it would be assumed that they know better, it can likely happen anywhere. So what is an employer to do to protect themselves if a sexual harassment situation is reported.
The most important thing an employer can do is act quickly and definitively. In the McDonald’s case, the plaintive brought her concerns to her manager and nothing was done. The Google settlement came about after the leadership team was accused of mishandling employee complaints of sexual misconduct and discrimination. It is essential to address accusations swiftly and thoroughly in order to not only do the right thing as an organization, but also to prove to government agencies and plaintive attorneys that the company takes harassment prevention seriously.
The first thing that needs to happen to address a harassment claim is an investigation. Depending on the severity of the accusation, employers may want to put the accused on a suspension while the investigation takes place. Comprehensive interviews should be conducted with the complainant, potential witnesses, and the accused. Every reasonable avenue should be followed. Don’t neglect to interview former employees who may have been witnesses just because they no longer work for the company. Interview questions should be exploratory, non-accusatory, and unbiased.
Once the investigation is completed and documented, a decision needs to be made on the viability of the claim and an appropriate response. The claimant should be advised of general actions that were taken. Employers need to be sure that they don’t disregard or under-address claims. Even if the situation is based off an isolated incident that is not determined to be severe or pervasive, the claim needs to be acknowledged and the behaviors addressed. That may just be a warning, or it may lead to termination.
SDEA’s HR on Loan program can help our members with investigations when they are needed to ensure that interviews and follow through are compliant and that the investigation is unbiased. If a harassment claim comes up in your organization, call us, don’t wait!
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