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Getting to the Truth: How to Conduct a Sexual Harassment Investigation

J Goldman Law June 4, 2024

Addressing sexual harassment in today’s workplace is about fostering a safe and respectful environment for all employees. Conducting a thorough and unbiased sexual harassment investigation is crucial in maintaining this kind of workplace.  

As a professional employer, it's your responsibility to ensure that all allegations of sexual harassment are taken seriously and handled with care.  

At J Goldman Law, our employment law attorney understands that handling allegations of sexual harassment requires a delicate balance of sensitivity, fairness, and thoroughness. We aim to provide HR professionals, employers, and workplace supervisors with the knowledge you need to conduct a thorough, effective sexual harassment investigation. 

Contact us today if you need help conducting an investigation. 

Understanding Sexual Harassment 

Sexual harassment in the workplace encompasses unwanted and inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature. It can appear in various forms: 

Physical Sexual Harassment 

Unwanted touching, physical advances, or assault. Unwanted touching can range from unwelcome hugs, pats, or any form of contact that is not consensual. Even seemingly benign gestures can be deemed inappropriate if they make the recipient uncomfortable.

Physical advances include behavior such as kissing, groping, or any attempts to initiate physical contact that is not reciprocated. Assault involves acts of a serious nature, such as threats of violence, coerced sexual acts, or physical aggression.

Sexual assault is a severe form of harassment that can cause profound distress and trauma. 

Verbal Sexual Harassment 

Inappropriate comments, jokes, or propositions. Verbal sexual harassment involves any unwelcome remarks or conversations that create a hostile or uncomfortable environment for the recipient. This includes explicit comments about an individual’s body, sexual innuendos, or derogatory jokes that demean or objectify someone based on their gender.  

Even seemingly casual comments contribute to an atmosphere of disrespect and unease if they are sexual in nature and unwanted. Propositions of a sexual nature, such as asking someone out repeatedly despite refusals, making comments about sexual desires or experiences, and other suggestive remarks, also classify as verbal harassment. 

Such behavior not only undermines the victim’s professional dignity but can also have significant emotional and psychological consequences, creating a toxic workplace environment.

Non-Verbal Sexual Harassment 

Gestures, emails, text messages, or visual materials with sexual content. Non-verbal sexual harassment involves actions or communications that convey a sexual message without spoken words. This type of harassment is often more subtle but still harmful.

Non-verbal cues such as winking, licking lips, or making obscene hand gestures add to an uncomfortable and hostile environment. These actions can be seen as just as explicit and invasive as verbal comments.

Sending sexually suggestive emails, texts, or any electronic communication constitutes non-verbal harassment. This includes sharing explicit images, videos, or jokes.

Even without direct physical or verbal contact, digital harassment can be pervasive and distressing. Moreover, it leaves a documented trail that can exacerbate the victim’s feelings of violation and anxiety.

Displaying or sharing sexually explicit photographs, posters, screensavers, or calendars in the workplace creates an environment that feels unsafe and disrespectful. Even without an explicit message directed at a specific individual, the presence of such materials can contribute to an atmosphere of harassment. 

The effects of sexual harassment extend beyond the individual victims. They create a toxic work environment that can result in decreased productivity, high turnover, and reputational damage for the organization. 

Preparing for the Investigation 

To prepare for the investigation, establish clear policies, train staff, and assemble an investigation team.  

The first step in addressing sexual harassment is having a clearly defined policy. This policy should outline what constitutes harassment, how to report it, and the steps the organization will take once a complaint is made. 

Employers should implement regular training sessions for all employees with the goal of preventing incidents and ensuring everyone understands the protocols. From these trainings, employees should be able to understand what constitutes inappropriate behavior and know the steps for reporting such behavior.  

In addition, employers should hire an impartial investigation team with appropriate, specialized training. This team should include members who can maintain confidentiality and have zero conflicts of interest. 

Initiating the Investigation 

When a complaint is received, acknowledge it promptly. Let the complainant know that their concerns are taken seriously and that an investigation will commence immediately. Maintain confidentiality throughout the process to protect all parties and prevent legal issues. The investigation must remain unbiased to result in a fair outcome. 

Putting together an investigation plan and timeline keeps the issue from becoming forgotten. Develop a clear plan that outlines the steps of the investigation. Include interviews and evidence collection, and set a realistic timeline for each phase. 

Gathering Evidence 

Conducting interviews allows you to gather witness evidence. Interview the complainant, the accused, and any witnesses. Prepare open-ended questions that allow individuals to provide detailed accounts of their experiences. 

Gather relevant documents, including emails, messages, and any other materials that may support the claims. Ask the interviewees to include everything they think may be of use to the investigation.  

Detailed records help the investigation run smoothly. Keep meticulous notes and records of all interviews and evidence collected. Documentation is key to substantiating findings and making informed decisions. 

Analyzing Information 

Review all collected evidence thoroughly. Look for consistency in testimonies and documents. Analyze the information for any patterns that support or refute the allegations. Inconsistencies should be examined carefully to understand their implications. 

Evaluate the credibility of each source, considering factors such as consistency in their statements and any potential biases. Be mindful of power dynamics or friendships in the workplace that may influence individuals' willingness to speak up or disclose information. 

Making a Decision 

After analyzing all evidence, make an informed and fair decision. Use your organization's policies and relevant laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and state sexual harassment laws, to guide your decision-making process. 

If necessary, consult with an experienced attorney to ensure you align your conclusions with legal standards. An attorney can help you make a fair and unbiased decision. If the investigation finds that harassment has occurred, take appropriate disciplinary action according to the organization's policies and laws. 

Reporting and Acting on Findings 

After finalizing the result, prepare a detailed report of your findings, including all evidence and the rationale for your conclusions. Inform the complainant and the accused of the investigation's outcome. Maintain professionalism and confidentiality during this communication. 

If harassment is confirmed, take appropriate corrective actions, which may include counseling, training, or disciplinary measures. Act promptly and consistently to maintain a safe and respectful workplace. 

Preventing Future Incidents 

Employers should use the investigation's results as an opportunity to educate employees on preventing future incidents. Keep your employees informed and educated about harassment through ongoing training and awareness programs. Review your policies, training programs, and complaint procedures regularly to ensure they align with current laws and best practices. 

Promote a workplace culture that values respect and safety. Encourage open communication and enforce zero tolerance for harassment.  

By conducting thorough sexual harassment investigations, organizations can create a safer work environment for their employees. 

Partnering in Your Investigation 

Conducting a thorough sexual harassment investigation is vital for maintaining a safe and respectful workplace.

At J Goldman Law, we are committed to helping organizations tackle these challenging situations with professionalism and care. By taking proactive steps, we can create a work environment where everyone feels valued and secure. 

If you need assistance or guidance on conducting a sexual harassment investigation, contact our lawyer as soon as you can. Our firm is located in Midtown Manhattan, near Madison Avenue and E 38th Street, serving clients throughout Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, East Village, Hell’s Kitchen, Upper West Side, Harlem, and across New York County.

Reach out to us today to discuss your needs and ensure your workplace remains a safe place for all employees.