Harassment in the workplace is disruptive to both employee morale and an employer’s bottom line. While sexual harassment has assumed a prominent position in the human resources lexicon – in part because of its overrepresentation in popular culture – keep in mind that illegal harassment may be based on any category protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, including race, national origin, disability, and age. At this point, nearly every employer has some version of a “no-harassment” policy or reporting procedure. However, merely featuring such policies prominently in an employee handbook is not sufficient protection under the law.  

An employer may be held liable for harassment that is perpetrated by supervisors, co-employees or even by non-employees, such as customers and callers. According to the Supreme Court, general agency principles will determine whether an employer can be held liable for harassment, even by a non-supervisor. However, many courts have ruled that if an employer takes prompt and effective corrective action in the face of a harassment complaint, the employer will not be held liable. A thorough investigation is a key component of this process.  

When an employee comes to a supervisor with a harassment complaint, it must be handled quickly, objectively, and effectively by the employer (typically by a human resources manager or office manager). While it would be impossible to address every fact pattern that could arise in a harassment investigation, an employer may be insulated from liability by adhering to five broad investigation guidelines.  

  1. Interview the Accuser
  2. Interview the Accused
  3. Review the Facts
  4. Determine the Appropriate Corrective Action
  5. Follow Through

This article appeared in the November 2012 issue of Connections Magazine.