No organisation is safe from claims of inappropriate behaviour

Preparation by HR is key when it comes to the effective handling of serious allegations in the workplace

The recent flood of accusations of sexual harassment against senior figures – everyone from film producer Harvey Weinstein to government ministers – is making organisations of all kinds very nervous. People with longstanding reputations have been reduced in days to a target for ridicule.

It has brought us to a new place when it comes to allegations of inappropriate behaviour at work. Confusion over what might have been flirting, or what was a joke or an awkward attempt at starting a relationship is now looking and feeling very different. Employees have the models, precedents and language to speak up about what has happened in the past or is happening to them now.

No organisation is safe from allegations relating to current or historic behaviour and the resulting impact it can have on credibility and staff relationships, with worsening grievances and tribunal cases a possibility. HR professionals need to look again at the risks involved to the organisation, and their people, and how they would cope with rumours and gossip escalating to formal claims against staff, managers and leaders.

Getting an investigation right is central to establishing a basis of trust. The Football Association is just one recent example of a high-profile employer whose handling of an investigation into misconduct – the behaviour of England Women’s football team manager Mark Sampson – led to serious questions over the credibility of the organisation’s leadership in general.

So what do organisations need to consider and take action on? Be proactive in encouraging openness and communication. As a starting point, departments need to ask whether their systems and approach are fair and just. Do they lead to the kind of confidence that encourages a victim to come forward? Having a ‘clear air’ culture in the workplace is important for supporting good working practices as well as helping minor issues come to the surface and be resolved early. It also acts as a fundamental way to discourage inappropriate behaviour and secrecy.

Ensure there are clear policies in place to respond to a sexual harassment case. A knee-jerk response isn’t going to help. It’s important to consider the system to be followed, who’s responsible and what expertise is on hand. Who’s going to have the initial conversation with the employee making an accusation – HR or the line manager? – and do they have the skills to cope?

Mediation can be useful in preventing an escalation of situations, but are there trained staff to do this? Or is there an external partner you can rely on? A first principle for any employer should be that there is never justification for secrecy or sticking plasters in these cases. Staff have to be able to trust in the professionalism and integrity of their organisation and, increasingly, sexual harassment claims will be key moments in terms of proving strong and effective management.

Watertight investigations are critical. There are many risks associated with mishandled investigations; for example, the potential for investigation conclusions to be challenged; claims of bias leading to employment tribunals; collapsing cases and humiliation; and the long-term effects on staff morale, relationships and the work environment.

There are basic principles that need to underpin the response and demonstrate a house that’s in order. Any allegation needs to be treated seriously in the first instance. There should, for example, be an onus on the person facing an accusation to engage in the process, and not have the option to refuse any participation.

Investigations need to be formal in terms of how they are organised, carried out and reported on, and they need to be proportionate with the alleged offence. There should never be any pressure on the victim to be accommodating in terms of reaching a settlement – for the sake of the reputation of their employer or the name of the individuals involved – and investigations need to be undertaken as quickly as possible in the interests of both sides.

Training in fair decision-making can be needed among panel members involved in the investigations and resolving situations. A panel may well include HR and a staff representative, but the assumed power will usually lie with the senior leader or manager when there needs to be equality in terms of how views and perspectives are treated.

The response also needs to be seen as even-handed. If an alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment is found guilty, it’s important that a department can ensure sanctions are consistent. If one staff member is given a rap over the knuckles while another in a different department is dismissed from their post for a similar offence this can create suspicion and confusion, and undermine confidence in the organisation.

Tim Kingsbury is head of investigations at CMP Resolutions