Suspicious Timing: Sexual Harassment Complaint Following Employee Discipline

by Joni E. Johnston, PsyD

When an employee makes sexual harassment accusations shortly after being disciplined, it's natural to assume the employee is lying. Consider these points before you jump to conclusions about the credibility of the employee's complaint.

Man with hands on womans shoulders
Image source: BigStockPhoto.com

Consider the following three scenarios:

Your manager finally sits down with Employee A to discuss her lack of clothing in the workplace. Instead of the satisfactory resolution you envision, she responds by complaining of sexually harassing comments by several of her coworkers. This is the first anyone has heard of it, in spite of the fact that you recently conducted a series of informal employee satisfaction interviews in which you specifically asked members of her team about inappropriate conduct.

Employee B's hours were recently reduced because he refused to be cross-trained for another position to fill his time. He also has several reprimands in his file and, according to his manager, he was just told he was in danger of losing his position altogether. Today you receive a certified letter accusing several employees of sexual harassment.

Employee C was promoted to manager a year ago because of her outstanding work ethic and amazing technical skills. However, it has become increasingly obvious that her interpersonal skills are getting in the way of her ability to lead. According to her manager (who has come to you in desperation for help), he has bent over backwards trying to get her to soften her feedback to her direct reports and spent excessive time mediating between this manager and managers she is supposed to coordinate with in other departments. When you meet with this employee, she is initially defensive about her manager's concerns. Then, out of the blue, she tells you that she believes her manager is retaliating against her because she has turned down his requests for dates.

Timing Matters

You have a very clear sexual harassment policy in place. You've trained your managers (and, hopefully, your employees) on what is unacceptable conduct in the workplace. You've encouraged them to come forward with any concerns. So, when mum's the word until an employee's back is up against the wall, it can be very hard to view a sexual harassment complaint with an open mind.

However, some investigators automatically assume that a complainant's prior poor work performance or poor credibility on other issues is enough to support their decision that the complainant is lying. This is a big mistake. Even poor performers can be harassed, and there are a myriad of reasons - legitimate and otherwise - why a sexual harassment victim might wait until her job is in jeopardy before filing a formal complaint.

 



But Not as Much as the Facts

Much more relevant is the credibility of the complainant as revealed by the facts of the specific complaint. For example; a complainant tells you her deteriorating work performance is due to the sexual harassment she has suffered over the past several months and names several coworkers whom she has allegedly talked to during this time. Yet, when you interview them, you discover a) that the focus of these conversations centered around her pending divorce, b) at no point did she mention inappropriate sexual conduct and c) her difficulties with the allegedly harassing manager seemed to be due to his refusal to transfer her to a job site closer to her home.

On the flip side is the manager who denies ever engaging in inappropriate conduct in spite of the evidence against him. What comes to mind is the investigation I recently completed during which an employee accused her manager of inappropriate touching, a claim which the manager staunchly denied. There were no witnesses, the manager had a long and productive history with the company, and the families of the two parties were friends. And yet, in spite of the serious doubts about the complainant's credibility, routine video surveillance clearly revealed the alleged conduct.

Avoiding Retaliation

If it is extremely clear that the employee filed a false complaint then she can never be trusted. However, if there is doubt and you now accuse the employee of making a false complaint you will likely face a charge of retaliation. If you doubt the complainant's veracity because of prior work related issues. In that event I would suggest that you have an independent investigation be conducted by a neutral organization. Allow that organization to draw its own conclusions without knowing about whatever credibility concerns that you have.

The Bottom Line

The timing of the accusations is something that judges and juries take into account when assessing the credibility of accusations, but it's only one element. If there's a formal complaint, you'll still likely win or lose on the merits of the complaint. If there's strong evidence that sexual harassment took place, the case could survive the suspicious timing of the allegations. If the evidence is weak, the timing will work in your favor.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D. is a clinical/forensic psychologist, licensed private investigator, and CEO of WorkRelationships, an employee relations training and consulting firm. This firm, established in 1991, specializes in difficult employee issues and provides workplace investigations, management training, and executive coaching. http://www.workrelationships.com

 
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