How to Investigate Sexual Harassment Allegations

Make sure you have the knowledge and training you need before any complaints surface.


he general manager of a Massachusetts car dealership testified at trial that he “honestly didn’t believe” a finance manager when she told him that her supervisor often commented on her anatomy, tried to throw coins down her blouse and suggested they sleep together so he could see her breasts.

The finance manager, who was fired after making complaints, ultimately was awarded $200,000 in punitive damages because her employer failed to properly investigate her allegations. That’s on top of $40,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress.

In ruling that punitive damages were warranted, the state’s high court issued a scathing review of the company’s handling of the woman’s grievances. In fact, it reads like a primer on what not to do in sexual harassment inquiries.

“The investigation was marred from the beginning” because of the general manager’s bias against the accuser, according to the court. The general manager and the HR manager at Lexus of Watertown Inc. claimed to have conducted separate investigations but couldn’t produce any notes. And the court found it particularly concerning that they couldn’t find anything to support the woman’s allegations, even though many of the incidents she reported were supported by other employees at trial. 

The case is just one example of how a poorly conducted investigation can harm an organization’s bottom line as well as its long-term reputation.

In the recent flood of sexual harassment allegations involving high-profile individuals in various industries, HR professionals have been criticized for being unwilling or unable to investigate such complaints. They’ve been accused of protecting their organizations, or at least the powerful individuals at their helms, at the expense of the harassed workers.

“Whether that’s true or not, there is clearly often the perception that HR is not working for employees,” which needs to be addressed, says Elaine Herskowitz, a former staff attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who drafted several key EEOC policies on sexual harassment three decades ago and now is a consultant.

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