Telling someone about harassment is a huge step for most people. For far, far too long, those who experience discrimination and harassment have been told that they are the problem, that they should be able to take a joke, that they shouldn’t make trouble, or worse, that they ‘asked for it’. You need to be sensitive to this, and acknowledge their courage in bringing forward the complaint.
STEP 1: ACCOMMODATE REQUESTS FOR ADDITIONAL SUPPORT.
Respect any request to have a woman, translator, person of colour or other advocate present with them during the investigation.
STEP 2: ASK KEY QUESTIONS.
The following questions will help you to get the necessary information you need from the complainant:
- Who is the alleged harasser?
- What did the alleged harasser do?
- What did the alleged harasser say? Can you remember the exact words?
- When did this happen? If it happened a long time ago, and it’s just now being reported, why is that? Where did this happen? Can you be specific?
- Were there any witnesses?
- How would you describe your relationship to the alleged harasser?
- Has this happened before?
- Has this happened to others?*
- Who else have you talked to about this?
- How has this affected you?
- What have you done about it so far?
- What would you like me to do?
- Do you need me to help you find support to get through this process?
- Do you feel alright about returning to your work area?
- How do you think this should be solved?
* While many harassers make life exceedingly difficult for several people, it’s also common for a harasser to target just one individual. Just because the harassment hasn’t been directed at anyone else, this doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened to the complainant.
STEP 3: BE SUPPORTIVE DURING THE INTERVIEW.
Try to put the complainant at ease. They need to get a sense that:
- you believe them
- you’re not blaming them for what allegedly happened
- you’re really listening
- you’re not jumping to conclusions or expecting certain answers
- you can be trusted to carry out a full and fair investigation
As an investigator, you can’t judge the situation. But you can reassure the complainant that you’re listening and taking notes. And you can let the person know that you understand that they did not like what they said was done to them. Do not suggest that the complainant ‘misunderstood’ what the alleged harasser did or said.
If the complainant is too uncomfortable to outline the details of the alleged harassment, ask them if they’d prefer to write it down.
People cope with harassment in different ways. Some people go over every detail again and again in their minds. Others block out as many details as they can. If you’re interviewing someone who can’t remember details, it might help to ask about other events that occurred around the same time. This could help them remember.
If a situation has been going on for months or years before it is reported, don’t be judgemental or impatient – there may be very good reasons why the complainant is coming forward now.
Harassment may cause shame, fear, anger, shock, humiliation, loneliness and stress. Harassment often leads to time off work and problems at home. The emotional and physical problems and illnesses brought on by it can be long lasting.
STEP 4: MAKE SURE YOU FIND OUT WHAT THE COMPLAINANT WANTS TO DO.
Make sure you ask the complainant what they need to happen to resolve the complaint. Don’t make any promises, but let the complainant know that you are listening to their needs.
If the complainant wants counselling, you can probably help them find something appropriate, but you should not take on the role of counsellor yourself.
STEP 5: DESCRIBE THE INVESTIGATION PROCESS AND EXPLAIN THE TIMELINES.
Outline the investigation process and time lines to the complainant. Let them know when you will follow up with them. Make it clear that you may need to talk to witnesses to complete your investigation.
Stress the need to keep the process as confidential as possible. Commit to doing your absolute best to ensuring that confidentiality is maintained. Ask that they do the same.
Let the complainant know that they can return to you with questions or to go over the case. They may want to bring you more details as they remember them.
WHAT IF THE COMPLAINANT IS AFRAID OF RETALIATION?
Retaliation is itself a form of workplace harassment, and will be treated as an even more severe offense. You should let both the complainant and the alleged harasser know that retaliation will lead to serious consequences. Reassure the complainant that the national and local union takes the issue of workplace harassment to heart. We will not tolerate harassment, and we are committed to safe and fair workplaces for everyone.
HOW IS THE COMPLAINANT PROTECTED DURING THE INVESTIGATION?
Depending on the nature of the complaint, you may need to insist that the employer give the complainant the option to:
- have the alleged harasser transferred (especially in cases where retaliation seems likely)
- take time off with pay while the complaint is being investigated (in severe cases)
- get counseling (paid for by the employer)
- stop working with the alleged harasser