Stephanie Miller, Director of Labor and Employee Relations, Lowe's Companies, Inc.
There is no doubt that your organization has been experiencing a rise in the number of complaints involving claims of sexual harassment. And I am sure you are expecting this trend to continue for the foreseeable future. As an employee relations practitioner, I would be remiss if I failed to mention a few reminders regarding the handling of sexual harassment allegations.
First, ensure that your organization has multiple channels an employee can use to report their concerns. Second, acknowledge all reports in a timely manner – this means within 24 – 48 hours of receipt. Third, review the allegations and determine what steps are needed. Regardless of who has lodged the complaint or who is accused, the company has an obligation to take such concerns seriously. Albeit, some allegations won’t rise to the level of a full investigation; quickly make a judgment regarding the level of due diligence the allegations warrant. Fourth, plan and investigate the allegations. Be sure to collect the facts (interviews, documentation, etc.) prior to starting your analysis. Always take the time to interview at least the complainant and the implicated party. Maintain all documents collected and created as part of the investigation file and keep it confidential. Fifth, upon conclusion of the fact gathering, determine whether a violation of your company’s sexual harassment policy occurred and discuss next steps with the decision- maker. Ensure that the outcome is fair and consistent with similar situations. Document the resolution in the investigation file. Lastly, follow up with the complainant and inform him/her that the investigation has been completed and actions as deemed appropriate have been taken.
There are several ways your organization can leverage technology to receive complaints, compile an investigative file (including documenting the resolution), communicate with the parties involved, safeguard against investigation process irregularities, determine the appropriate level of disciplinary action, and analyze sexual harassment trends within your organization.
1. Reporting Channels
As mentioned above, it is important that your employees have a few options to submit their complaints. One such channel could be an e-form that can be accessed and completed 24/7, and automatically route to the parties responsible for reviewing and investigating. This channel provides a simple way for reporters to raise their concerns allowing your company to get on top of complaints quickly.
Key to a sound investigation process is solid record keeping
2. Case Management System Record Keeping
Key to a sound investigation process is solid record keeping. With a case management system, your organization can maintain all information gathered during an investigation, beginning with the complaint up to and including the resolution. The system time stamps all activities, creating a timeline of investigation actions.
Additionally, a case management system can be configured in accordance with your company’s records retention policy. It is important to purge investigation records per your policy so that you are not legally compelled to produce documentation that you should have already purged.
Communicating with involved parties
With the help of a case management system, your investigator can use the system to communicate directly with the parties involved. Rather than having to forward or copy/paste email threads into a stand-alone investigation file, the case management system will chronologically log the correspondence and alert the investigator to incoming messages.
Safeguarding against investigation process irregularities
When investigating sexual harassment or any workplace concern, it is critically important to adhere to your company’s internal investigation process. Companies can build tasks into the case management system that must be completed by the investigator before closing the case. While this feature will not entirely ensure investigation process steps are completed, it provides written guidance to the investigator and can be easily audited to determine the quality of the required steps.
Fair and consistent outcomes
Does your organization find itself depending upon the memories of its managers and HR professionals when determining how similar misconduct matters have been handled? Because an investigator will be able to log the outcome of investigations, the company will be able to search the system for issue-specific outcomes and review the supporting rationale. This function will help your company maintain consistency in the handling of workplace issues within a single facility as well as across multiple locations.
3. Reporting and Trend Analytics
One of the most powerful aspects of a case management system is the ability to run reports on the types of complaints being raised by your employees and how they are resolved. With the insights your organization is collecting vis-à-vis its case management system data, you will be able to help your leaders and managers understand where there are problem areas and help them determine action plans to address. For example, your case data may reveal that there have been 5-6 complaints of sexual harassment in a single location, resulting in the termination of all the accused parties. Coupled with the details of these cases, your company can be somewhat proactive by implementing additional training and even target the training, depending upon the positions of the accused parties.
In sum, technology can dramatically improve your organization’s ability to: maintain investigation files, automate aspects of your process, communicate with the involved parties, establish consistency regarding outcomes, and identify workplace trends. However, keep in mind that technology should not drive your investigation process; instead, technology should enhance your organization’s sound investigation steps.