Besides terminating or laying off employees, one of the most challenging responsibilities you might have as a human resources manager or director is responding to workplace complaints. Harassment complaints can be particularly difficult because they generally pit two or more employees against each other, instead of the mundane complaint about job dissatisfaction where employees don't accuse others of wrongdoing. In responding to harassment complaints, follow HR best practices from investigation through resolution for the best possible outcome.
Following the Steps
Your organization should have a formal process for employees to follow when they believe they've been harassed or when they witness what they consider harassment. Publish the process in your employee handbook and ensure that employees know what steps they should take to file a harassment complaint. If you're in HR and the employee comes directly to you with her complaint, chances are that she either doesn't feel comfortable talking to her immediate supervisor about harassment or that she believes her supervisor is culpable for violating the company policies against workplace harassment.
A Listening Ear
You can be a somewhat sympathetic listening ear and still approach the complaint from an objective stance. As the employee is recalling events that she believes violate the company's policy against harassment, refrain from responses -- nonverbal or otherwise -- that suggest you either don't trust the employee or that you disagree with his accusations. On the other hand, don't indicate any type of agreement with the employee's complaint until you have completed your investigation. Right now, your job is to simply gather information so that you can launch a workplace investigation and make a recommendation.
To the extent you can, you should tell the employee that you will guarantee confidentiality. But if it's a complaint that must be investigated through witness interviews, you will be unable to maintain strict confidentiality. Explain to the employee that your investigation may require you to release information about the complaint, but that you will only share information on a need-to-know basis. Avoid making promises that you can't keep, such as indicating how long the investigation will take or alluding to an outcome or resolution. The only thing you can reasonably promise is that the employee's complaint will receive priority attention.
Reassurance is Calming
Employees who are visibly shaken by workplace events that involve harassment might need reassurance that your intent is to uphold the workplace policy that ensures employees they are working in a safe and nonthreatening environment. If your intuition tells you that the employee may genuinely be in a fragile emotional state, you can offer to give her the afternoon off. Exercise prudence in these types of decisions, however. You don't want to give the employee or the accused the impression that you favor one side over the other.