EEOC, in two recent decisions, has made it clear that a delay in responding to harassment allegations and reasonable accommodation requests can result in findings of discrimination. In this post, we’ll look at delays in responding to harassment allegations.
In Complainant v. Ashton B. Carter, Secretary, Department of Defense (Defense Commissary Agency), Agency, 0120130331, EEOC found that once the agency learned of the harassment, it failed to take prompt and effective action to address the harassment. It took the supervisor 11 days to speak to the alleged victim after he learned of the harassment. The agency did not explain the reason for that delay or why the supervisor did not take any steps to address the allegations. The supervisor did not speak to the alleged harasser until 21 days after he learned of the allegations. EEOC found the 21-day delay in speaking with an alleged harasser constituted a failure to act promptly to address harassment.
This case serves to remind us that time is of the essence when it comes to taking immediate and appropriate action. Those of us who are EEO professionals often learn of these allegations after the damage is done. Once an EEO complaint is filed, the agency is put in a defensive position. This case can be used by those of us who conduct EEO training to remind managers and supervisors of the affirmative responsibility to take immediate and appropriate action when learning of allegations of harassment or a hostile work environment. When advising managers or supervisors, here are some steps they should take once they are advised of a claim of harassment:
- Get details from the alleged victim. Ask the standard who, what, when, where why, how. Also find out if there were any witnesses. Document your interview.
- Talk to the Alleged Harasser. All alleged harassers have the right to hear and respond to the accusations. Be sure to conduct the interview in the same straightforward, unbiased manner you did when you talked to the alleged victim. Document your interview.
- Decide Next Steps. If your inquiry did not reveal conclusive evidence of what occurred, you will likely want to convene an administrative investigation. Talk with your HR/ER partners.
- Communicate with the Alleged Victim. A common mistake occurs when the manager does not communicate with the person who has been harassed. An important step is to keep them apprised of your efforts. It’s also advisable to ask them if the conduct they brought to your attention has stopped.
- Conduct the Investigation. Follow your organization’s policy for conducting investigations.
- Take Appropriate Action. Upon receipt of the investigation, you should know whether or not harassment occurred. If it did occur, consult with HR/ER staff to decide what appropriate action to take.
- Communicate with the Alleged Victim. As stated above, communication with the individual is critical. Share the outcome of the investigation. Do not share details of any possibility of disciplinary action. What’s important here is to confirm that the harassing behavior has stopped. Focus the individual on that.
As usual, we welcome your comments, feedback and ideas on this topic. Stay tuned for Part II of this post where we’ll discus delays in responding to reasonable accommodation requests.