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Dear ReWorker,

If an employee reports harassment to their manager, is it the responsibility of the manager to report it to HR? What should if the employee doesn't want the complaint to go to HR, and the manager doesn't want to lose the employee's trust? And, what should a manager do if the employee describes the situation, but doesn't provides the name of the alleged harasser? Does a manager need to take any steps if an employee goes directly to HR and claims they don't want an investigation?

Sincerely,

Reluctant to Report

___________________________________________________________________________________

Dear Reluctant,

When an employee comes to you with a complaint, the subject of the complaint is critical.

If your employee says, "I can't stand working with James because he's always talking about Minecraft and it drives me insane! Can you do something about it? And please, don't tell him I said anything," then you can decide how to best handle the situation. You can tell your complaining employee to suck it up. Alternatively, you can go to James and say, "Hey buddy, can you knock off the Minecraft talk?" without mentioning who brought it up. Or you can ignore the complainer entirely. Easy peasy.

It's not a big deal because a Minecraft discussion, while annoying to some, has no legal ramifications.

But, if your employee comes to you about racist jokes or sexual comments made by a colleague, then you've got a problem that you can't ignore. As a manager, you are now acting on behalf of your organization and once the company is aware of a problem, it has to act. If you ignore this or tell the person to suck it up, you are opening up the company to legal liability. Here's what you need to do to handle the harassment, while protecting the employee that reported it:

Follow Your Company's Procedures

Your company should have a spelled-out protocol for reporting illegal harassment complaints—follow it! Most likely, you're required to report the incident to your manager and/or the HR department. That's right, it's your responsibility to turn it over to HR, no matter what your employee requests.

Why can't you just handle it yourself? Because procedures need to be followed. This isn't just because your HR manager loves paperwork—it's because consistency is important when it comes to legal matters and ramifications. If you simply tell the accused to knock off his racist jokes and assume that the problem is taken care of, it seems like a decent solution until you find out that Sonja in another department was suspended for making racist jokes. Suddenly, you've made the company susceptible to a gender discrimination lawsuit from Sonja, since her punishment was more strict than James' for the same offense.

Tell the Reporting Employee Why You Must Involve HR

This is the hard part, but you'll have to be honest with the employee that brought the harassment to your attention. Try a dialogue like this: "Jane, I really appreciate you coming and telling me about this. We take sexual/racial/religious harassment very seriously. I know you want to keep this quiet, and I respect that. However, the company has to investigate your claims and solve the problem. I promise you that you will face no retaliation for coming forward, and we will do our best to protect your privacy."

Your employee may not like hearing that, and that's unfortunate. But, this is a situation where you can't respect an employee's request to do nothing.

The law and your company policies require action. When you report the problem to HR, make clear that you promised your employee that this would be handled in the most professional and confidential manner possible. That should be standard, but it never hurts to remind people.

Sincerely,

Your ReWorker

Suzanne Lucas, Evil HR Lady

Photo: Creative Commons