Being accused of harassment in the workplace is a serious matter. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's "Sexual Harassment Fact Sheet," if you or your business is found to have harassed an employee, penalties can range from reprimand or termination for an individual, to substantial monetary judgments against the employer. Whether you are guilty of harassment or feel the accusation is baseless, a few basic steps will help you navigate this unpleasant situation.
Take it Seriously
Approach the matter with a serious and respectful attitude. Making light of the accusation or attempting to retaliate in any way may escalate the situation. Listen carefully to the complaint; try to see the questionable behavior from your accuser’s point of view. The Department of Health and Human Services' "Workplace Harassment Training" suggests, if you feel that your behavior has been out of line, apologize and promise your accuser that it won’t happen again. However, if you feel the accusation is in error, do not apologize; this could be interpreted during subsequent investigations as an admission of guilt. Instead, thank the accuser for bringing the problem to your attention; express your regret that your behavior was interpreted as harassment, and promise to refrain from engaging in that behavior in the future.
Try to keep the matter between you and your accuser. If you remain calm and non-defensive during your initial and subsequent conversations, the matter may end amicably with no need for further action. If you precipitously defend your actions to a supervisor, company policy may dictate that formal proceedings begin. After discussing the matter with the complainant, wait to see if your accuser takes the matter further up the chain of command.
Should an official complaint be lodged against you, it is your duty -- and to your advantage -- to cooperate fully. If you are guilty, your cooperation -- or lack thereof -- may be an important consideration in the case’s resolution and penalty decisions. If the allegation or allegations are false, your cooperation will help limit the damage done to the company and the involved parties’ reputations. The DOT fact sheet warns against making counter-complaints, even if there are grounds to do so. Despite the veracity of the complaint against you, this could be considered unlawful retaliation.
Official harassment charges -- especially of a sexual nature -- can be embarrassing to all concerned parties. State and federal law dictate that the employer keep the matter as confidential as possible. The only people who need to know about the case are you, the accuser, witnesses and investigators. Remember, at least two people in every harassment allegation have their reputations at stake. During the investigation, you will be given a chance to address each complaint against you. Remain calm and answer factually. You may also be asked if there are any reasons that the complainant would falsely accuse you of harassment.
If you are sued in a court of law for sexual harassment, the HHS training advises you to hire an attorney immediately. Federal law provides for substantial monetary damages against companies proved to have engaged in, or permitted, sexual harassment in the workplace. Your attorney’s fees will be your responsibility; but if the charges against you are found to be groundless, the court’s ruling may include reimbursement of those fees by the plaintiff.