Complaints of sexual harassment are often complicated and
tricky for employers to handle. The potential risks can be high: to the
individuals involved and the organisation and its reputation.
Properly investigating these complaints is absolutely key because it means that the employer can a) take action to protect its employees, and b) manage its risks based on the full picture, and hopefully avoid ending up in the Tribunal.
Investigations of harassment can often be difficult for a number of reasons. A common issue is that when a female employee has been harassed by her boss, she may not have not complained at first (and may have gone along with his advances) through fear of losing her job, which can mean that the evidence (texts, messages, etc) may not reflect the true picture. This was the situation in the recent case of Beaney v Highways England and others. In that case the Employment Tribunal gave some useful reminders of how an employer should approach an investigation:
- Ensure that the investigator is properly trained and has appropriate experience of conducting investigations;
- If possible, make sure the investigator is not a friend / close colleague of the accused, as this may consciously or subconsciously affect their investigation;
- Make sure that the investigator has a genuinely open mind and is thorough. These cases often require deep digging, beyond the superficial evidence.
- Lastly, ensure that the person making the complaint is treated appropriately and sensitively – they are not the one under investigation.
These are all obvious points but they are vital. The investigation is the foundation of the process, so if it is flawed, there’s a good chance that the rest of the process will be.
The way for employers to put themselves in the best position to deal with these situations is through educating their staff, training their investigators and having good, effective policies in place.
Paul Ryman gives comment on Beaney v Highways England and others reported by People Management. Read more here.