Academic journal article SAM Advanced Management Journal

Investigating Sexual Harassment Complaints: An Update for Managers and Employers

Academic journal article SAM Advanced Management Journal

Investigating Sexual Harassment Complaints: An Update for Managers and Employers

Article excerpt

Employers ignore sexual harassment complaints at their peril. They must navigate amid a number of federal statutes that define and affect their responsibility to maintain a harassment-free workplace. Employers must have an effective and well-publicized anti-harassment policy, they must investigate any claims, and they should administer appropriate discipline, as warranted. This article focuses on the crucial investigation stage. It provides detailed guidance on procedures, conduct, and the final written report to help protect employees from such behavior and from false charges, as well as protect employers from suits alleging liability regarding such claims.


Investigating sexual harassment complaints is a critical aspect of any employer's efforts to create a workplace that is free from discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission to such conduct is a term or condition of employment, is used as the basis for an employment decisions, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or, even without submission, the conduct creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment (EEOC, 2009).

An employer's responsibility in the area of sexual harassment includes an understanding of relevant law, a well-developed and publicized sexual harassment policy, training for employees and managers to help them understand and carry out the policy, and a procedurally and substantively proper investigation procedure. Appropriate discipline or remedy must follow a finding of harassment. Employers must be aware that having a sexual harassment policy is not enough to protect them against liability if they fail to properly investigate employee complaints.

This paper focuses on procedural issues that can cause a court or jury to find an employer liable for failing to conduct a proper investigation. It provides updated legal background based on Title VII, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, and the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003. It also provides insights from legal, academic, and practitioner literatures, relevant source materials, information on the role of electronic media, and best practices for initial intake managers and investigators.

Sexual harassment complaints are a critical aspect of work life for all employers. They consume valuable resources, create morale and productivity issues and may result in negative publicity. More than 11,700 sexual harassment complaints were filed with the EEOC in fiscal year 2010. In that same year, the resolution of 12,700 cases resulted in more than $48 million in recovered benefits for charging parties and other aggrieved individuals, exclusive of any monetary benefits obtained through litigation (EEOC, 2010). A review of EEOC press releases for the past two years reveals details of sexual harassment settlements with such well-known businesses as Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, Cheesecake Factory, McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, IHOP, Lenscrafters, and Dollar General, among others (EEOC, 2011). The consent decrees in these cases often call for enhanced sexual harassment policies and training for employees, managers, and investigators.

Guidance for employers in developing policies and training programs is available from the EEOC and human resource literature. Policy guidance is provided on the EEOC Web site (EEOC, 1999). Policy formation and training are addressed by others as well (Trotter and Zacur, 2004; Levy and Paludi, 2001; Orlov and Roumell, 1999). Training guidance is updated in an extensive review of practitioner and research literature by Perry, Kulik, and Field (2009). Assuming an employer has a clear sexual harassment policy and that appropriate training has taken place, this paper focuses on the next phase: the investigation of sexual harassment complaints. …

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