When facing a situation of harassment at the workplace absolute confidentiality before reporting should be considered. Likewise, to know what to do before a confession of harassment, the duration of the investigation, to know how to handle the confession and how to identify if it is false.
One of the most demanding challenges
for HR is to discover what is the correct thing to say in a case of harassment.
HR often focuses too much
on following the law to the letter, without remembering that each case, and each person, is different.
5 suggestions on what to say in these situations
1. When people require absolute confidentiality before reporting.
75% of employees do not report harassment situations, mainly due to fear of reprisals.
- HR cannot guarantee absolute confidentiality, since it is its obligation to act. However, this could result in whistleblowers not speaking or simply leaving.
- In this situation, you should answer: «I am here to listen, but I cannot promise absolute confidentiality, what I can tell you is that we do not tolerate retaliation.»
- Avoid putting the word «harassment» in the conversation before you know what the problem is and think about the words you choose. It is necessary to begin by properly characterizing the situation.
2. When someone confesses to have experienced a bullying or harassment situation.
- The first thing HR should say is: «Thank you for bringing your concerns to me, that is a very serious accusation, and I want you to know that we take this very seriously.»
- HR should not make any judgment at the time about the validity of the concerns but focus instead on the complainant’s emotions.
- Avoid making value judgments, because they imply a conclusion made ahead of time. Likewise, comments that imply a predisposition toward the accused (for example: «[…] he would be incapable, you must be confused.»)
3. When employees ask how long an investigation will last.
- Avoid dealing with the issues of the duration of a legal process when people are aware of the research being done on the employer, since it is impossible to offer a definitive timetable.
- When facing this situation, say: «I cannot give you an answer about it, but I will provide an update no later than Friday on where we are» and when that date arrives, tell the truth.
4. When workers feel uncomfortable providing details such as the use of racial remarks or insults.
- Often, repeating racist or sexist words or phrases can be embarrassing and hurtful. However, you will need that information to do a thorough investigation.
- Begin by asking softly: Are you comfortable sharing what they said? Then, let them know how they could share the words in a way that seems safe to them, either by writing them, leaving a voice message or writing the first letters.
5. When your investigation reveals that the complaint does not indicate harassment behavior.
- This is one of the most difficult things you will have to do, because «if everything is harassing behavior, then nothing is harassing behavior.»
- Remember that, in most cases, employees who have the courage to file a complaint actually feel upset, even if the facts do not corroborate misconduct.
- The first thing HR should do is thank the person for expressing his/her concern. Also, make them understand that they don’t have an objectively incorrect perception of the behavior that bothered them, and that the accused will be asked not to repeat that conduct again.
- If the worker reacts defensively, he/she may be reassured by phrases such as «I understand that it was uncomfortable for you» or «I believe you shared it in good faith.» However, be clear in advance about your conclusion.