A recent case illustrates the dangers of encouraging employees to report harassment to their supervisors, who may not be trained to recognize and handle those complaints. In Bombaci v. Journal Community Publishing Group (7th Cir. Apr. 10, 2007), Bombaci claimed she was harassed during the three years she worked for the company. Though the company said it had responded promptly to her complaint, a female co-worker of Bombaci claimed she had reported similar incidents to a manager approximately two years earlier. If true, the manager failed to act on the complaint, instead passing off responsibility for addressing the issue to a lower-level worker who had no authority to remedy sexual harassment.

The bottom line is that a report of workplace harassment to a supervisor is, usually, the legal equivalent of telling the company. If those supervisors are not trained to respond properly, it could expose the company to liability. Avoiding that risk requires a decision about who within the organization “needs to know” about such claims.

One option is to train supervisors to recognize and report employee complaints to Human Resources or upper management. Or, a company can state in its workplace harassment policy that all complaints of harassment must be reported to Human Resources or to designated company officials, but not to supervisors. In that case, the policy should also specify that supervisors do not have authority to receive or to act on harassment complaints and that notice to a supervisor does not comply with an employee’s responsibility to report harassment to HR or upper management.

Another reason to consider excluding supervisors from the list of individuals authorized to receive workplace harassment reports is that it breaks the chain of causation for potential retaliation complaints. An employee who later claims that poor treatment by his or her supervisor was prompted by the earlier complaint of harassment will not be able to show that the decision maker knew about the employee having made a harassment complaint. By determining who needs to know – and who does not – a company can go a long way toward preventing both harassment and retaliation claims.