OK. You have a policy about violence and harassment in the workplace. You’ve got a program in place to implement the policy and to make employees aware of it. Now someone has made a complaint under the policy. What are your next steps?
With any luck, the policy will have been written so that your next steps are already laid out. The complaint will have to be investigated, and based on the investigation, some remedy may be called for. The investigator will speak to the person who has made the complaint (“the complainant” ) and to the accused person (“the respondent”). After each interview, the investigator will draw up a statement for each party, which they will sign. The investigator may also speak to witnesses and have them sign statements as well. Finally, the investigator will study your policy, and then determine whether the behaviour in question constitutes a violation of it or not. The investigator’s decision will be in the form of a written report. The report is delivered to whomever is in charge of sanctions under the policy. The investigator may be a supervisor, someone from the Human Resources team, or an outside party. (I offer investigations through my company Principled Dispute Resolution and Consulting.)
An example might be useful here: Mike is an employee, and Mary is his immediate supervisor. After learning about the sections of the policy regarding harassment, Mike makes a complaint that Mary has, on several instances, made negative, hurtful, and belittling comments about his recently acquired tattoos. Some of these remarks were made in private, but some were in the presence of his co-workers Sam and Jill. The investigator interviews Mike, asking him to describe these incidents. Based on the interview, the investigator writes up a statement. Mike reviews it and signs, or asks the investigator to make changes before he will sign. Next the investigator interviews Mary, to get her perspective on the incidents in question. Again, the interviewer draws up a statement for Mary’s approval and signature. Depending on what Mary has said, (“I did make the comments and I’m very sorry,” or “I respectfully asked Mike to observe our dress code and never belittled him”) the investigator may interview Sam and Jill about the incidents that they witnessed, and draw up statements for them. Finally, the investigator studies the workplace policy on harassment in light of the relevant legislation (in Ontario that means Bill 168). and makes a decision about whether Mary’s behaviour is in violation of the policy. (Your policy might be stricter than the relevant legislation, but it cannot be weaker.)
What happens after the report is submitted? Again, your policy should describe the possible sanctions or consequences for violations. Mediation may or may not be appropriate at this point, depending on the nature of the incidents. It might be good for Mike and Mary to sit down together with a neutral third party and to discuss, in a controlled environment, what happened between them. Mediation is an option, whether or not the investigator finds that Mary’s behaviour was inappropriate. Mike’s hurt feelings are real, whether or not Mary intended him to feel badly, and whether or not her actions crossed the line into harassment. Mike and Mary may still have to work together, and clearing the air between them is a good idea.
Once you have a policy on workplace harassment and programs in place to implement it, don’t be surprised if you start to receive complaints. Employees may feel that they no longer have to put up with behaviour that they have endured for some time. And don’t be dismayed to receive complaints. Although it isn’t nice to think that harassment occurs in your workplace, being aware is the first step in stamping it out.