I exited the elevator, right into…
“Oh, there you are. Do you have some time later today? I’m totally unsupported. This is a hostile work environment I need to take a medical because of this place…I’m still waiting on my manager to get back to me on that. I’m a Jewish female over 40 with a disability, and I’m being impacted here, H-E-L-L-O?
Here’s the deal, I guess I told everyone to keep an eye on their food in the fridge because I’ve seen Ed in there eating things that don’t belong to him. He found out, and now I am being retaliated against – that goes against the Whistle Blower Act, right? Oh wait, I got more, there’s harassment. Every time I walk by the security guard, he’s Ed’s buddy you know, he undresses me with his eyes (clutching her chest) – imagine! It’s all so upsetting I can’t do my job (now in tears).
Oh, the hostility! This feels like an EEO! I’ve been carrying this like a stone in my heart. Anyway, (tears dry up) salt of the earth you are. Talk to you in a bit, get settled.” Just when I thought it was over she doubled back “Oh, Krispy Kremes in the break-room sweetie” (blows a kiss).
OY VEY! No one should have to hear that before 8:00 a.m. However, an emotional diatribe from an employee can be a warning alerting you of potential liability. Where most people hear noise, the savvy HR Leader is listing to identify risk.
Employment law states that employees have a right to work in an environment free of harassment and discrimination, and one that offers reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. In addition, there are more than a dozen protected classes of employees under federal and/or state law.
Was my organization at risk for:
- Sexual harassment?
- Not following FMLA protocol?
- Hostile work environment?
- Bias against a protected class (“Jewish female woman over 40”)?
- Providing bad donuts in the break-room?
Led by my better judgment, I skipped the Krispy Kreme and starting prepping for an investigation. Yes, an HR investigation!
HR investigations are tedious, disruptive, and time-consuming, but don’t be guided to inaction by the following notions, it’s simply not worth the risk:
1. “Perhaps the employee was only venting. She probably doesn’t even want an investigation.”
The need for an investigation arises when an employee complains about circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to conclude that the complaint was based on discriminatory conduct. Once HR became aware of the employee’s allegations, the organization must conduct an investigation.
2. “Maybe I’ll hold off and wait until I receive something in writing to make sure she’s serious before I waste my time.”
When an employee has alleged harassment or discrimination, an investigation should be conducted even if the employee does not explicitly use the words “harassment” or “discrimination,” and also if the complaint is only lodged verbally. Under these conditions, an investigation is not optional.
3. “I’ll give it some time, they’ll be sharing take-out in the break room by the end of the week.”
It is important to move quickly if you have reason to believe an employee has been harassed, is working in a hostile work environment, or been denied a reasonable accommodation; and an investigation is necessary. It should be handled by an HR professional and/or another objective manager trained in investigations. Your final report should include only factual findings along with any inconsistencies that may require further scrutiny.
Harassment and discrimination claims present a significant liability risk for even the most cautious of employers. Protect your organization by having clearly defined anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, HR policies on understanding EEO principles, and clearly spelling out these policies on workplace harassment and discrimination with your team.
So the next time you’re accosted in the hall by an employee with a complaint. Don’t take chances. Listen carefully, assess the nature of the complaint, and act immediately.
It may cost you to do otherwise.
William has held consulting and strategic HR roles at Virginia Mason, Mercer Human Resources Consulting, Kaiser Permanente, and Williams-Sonoma. He has a proven track record for building employee satisfaction through building leadership competencies and strong collaborative HR partnerships with leadership teams that focus on the staff retention and fostering cultures of engagement. William regularly shared his insights and experience though for a number of Talent publications including Fistful of Talent, Career Crossroads (CXRWorks), and The HR Gazette and believes that an organization’s human capital is their most valuable asset.