Office Confidential

“Investigating a sex-harassment complaint made it worse. Help!”

Why employers need to have an independent agent look into sexual harassment cases

Woman sitting at boardroom table looking at the camera

(David Lees/OJO Images/Getty)

Dear Office Confidential,

I’m the owner of a company, and try to maintain an open, fair work environment for all my employees. Recently, a female employee approached me and told me she had concerns about her male manager—he’d been making comments about her looks that made her uncomfortable. This guy’s a star in my company, and I didn’t want to believe he was acting inappropriately, so I called all the other female employees he works with and asked how they felt working for him. None of them had complaints. I’ve spoken with him and he says her comments are the result of a misunderstanding—and frustration about a bad performance review she got. Now I’m in a he-said, she-said situation. What should I do?


You sound like a well-meaning employer. Now let’s get you better equipped. Despite your good intentions, your attempt to get to the bottom of this complaint may have been a little misguided.

In general it’s not a good idea for the owner of a company to conduct a harassment investigation. You need an independent agent to ask the questions; your staff aren’t likely to take a risk and talk openly to the boss no matter how much they trust you. Don’t forget, you’re asking for dirt about a star employee; even if they don’t consider him to be your personal favourite, they may temper their comments because they know the team relies on him.

You also have to think about your own vulnerability. Consider that most sexual harassment cases are launched after the complainant leaves the company. She has already been given a bad performance review by your star. Now that you appear to have made her complaint public, he may have it in for her or she may feel outed. She may not last long. And you could find yourself dealing with a harassment complaint or even, in an extreme case, a criminal charge. Will the complainant consider you as an “office of official notice” for harassment cases? For legal matters, it is important that a workplace have a clearly defined office of official notice for complainants in harassment and discrimination cases—otherwise the human rights commissions and courts may interpret any communication the employee makes to anyone in the company as official notice, thus starting the company’s liability for failure to act.

Bottom line: You need an independent, knowledgeable agent to deal with a case like this. Your HR department, an internal employee or an external Ombuds Officer can help deal informally with issues such as mediation and coaching (the International Ombudsman Association provides very good training for anyone taking on such a role internally). To deal with full investigations, however, you need someone specifically trained for that purpose.

But make sure to get sound legal and practical advice before establishing anyone in that role, since the position you create may end up becoming an “office of official notice” for harassment cases. Invest some resources into proper advice so that you avoid liability later.

Secondly, you may need legal advice. Sexual harassment is illegal and can result in serious legal liability for the organization.

Being star struck can cost you. Be pro-active and build a workplace culture that gets everyone to work.

Office Confidential questions are answered by Workplace Fairness Institute staff Blaine Donais, Rosalie Bellefontaine and Andrew Cook. This new column is part of #project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #project97.

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