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Help! I've been accused of sexual harassment

Dear Evil HR Lady

I am a new manager (3 months), and one of my supervisors recently notified me of an issue she is having with her co-worker. I explained that I was aware of the issue and was addressing it. (The issue with her coworker did not directly affect her or her workload.)

Three days later, she came to me again with the same issue -- this time with a tone of voice as if I had not addressed the issue. I explained to her that I did know about the issue but that it would be inappropriate for me to discuss my conversation with this other supervisor and that I was handling the issue. She then told me that she has something else to address with me. She said that I make her feel uncomfortable because I look at her inappropriately. I told her that I was sorry that she felt this way and that If I had done this it was unintentional. My first instinct was to report this to HR, as I felt that I was being threatened with an accusation that was untrue because she did not like being counseled on her persistence in resolving an issue with her coworker.

I am questioning this choice because I fear that this situation could turn on me and could cause me problems or to lose my job.

This is a bit of a sticky situation. Your employee hasn't yet made a formal complaint against you, but by telling you she felt uncomfortable with the way you "look" at her, she's setting the stage for a bigger complaint later on. Personally, I think anything as vague as a look should not count as harassment, but not everyone agrees with me.

I would definitely report the incident to HR, if only to document the situation. You're absolutely in the right not to involve this woman in her coworker's problem. It is your problem to solve, not hers. And even if this coworker did cause this woman to have to do extra work, how you handle it is still your problem and not hers. But HR is here to help you.

I realize that many people have bad attitudes about HR, but as a new manager this is the perfect opportunity to get to know your HR person. I asked long time HR manager and employee-relations expert Rebecca Goldbach what her suggestions are for handling this situation, and the very first thing she said was to get to know your HR person. Look to your HR manager as a consultant on how you're running your piece of the business.

Plus, on a purely self-interested note, if HR knows you and knows your work, if something odd is alleged about your conduct your reputation will have preceded you. It's easier to keep a good reputation going then it is to build one from scratch when the first thing they know about you is that one of your employees is complaining.

More specifically, here is what Goldbach suggests regarding your situation: 

When a manager is faced with this type of situation described by this gentleman, I would suggest that he proactively approach HR via email to let them know what the employee has said, what he believes he should do or what he did in response, and that he would appreciate their guidance. This is important for several reasons.

First, being proactive allows the company to decide how they want to handle the situation. Perhaps they will wait to see if she comes forward. Perhaps they will investigate immediately. Either way, the manager has shared this information with the appropriate authority, absolving himself of sole ownership of the information. This is critical for your own legal protection.

Second, passing on the information and doing so in writing contemporaneously with the event demonstrates that the manager (and by extension, the company) takes a complaint of this nature seriously. A smart HR department will move to investigate the complaint in order to show this commitment to a harassment-free workplace. Not all investigations have to end with a manager or an employee being disciplined or terminated. Sometimes, [a determination that] "We cannot conclude from the information gathered that there has been a violation of company policy in this case" is a very positive finding for the manager and the employee. Again, a quick, thorough, and complete investigation is an important defense to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claim or a lawsuit in the future.

Third, taking this information to HR demonstrates to this employee that her manager will not be bullied or held hostage by her allegations. It puts the manager in better control over the situation and demonstrates that he wants to work through this problem by bringing in a neutral third party. This is important because he and the complainant must continue to work together in the future, and that needs to be a productive association. If he comes forward with the allegations with the intent to clear the air, it can take away the threat of a future claim of retaliation should this woman complain to HR about her treatment and then face discipline from this manager in the future, or receive a less than stellar performance evaluation, etc.

Fourth, as a practical matter, I would encourage this manager not to get into situations where he is alone with this woman behind closed doors. That is extremely difficult to do with a subordinate because meetings about her performance and conduct and many confidential business matters have to take place routinely, and it is not always practical to have a witness to a conversation. He should just be more aware of his expressions, mannerisms, and word choice around her without giving her an awareness that he is treating her differently because of the allegation (an extremely difficult task, so it needs some forethought and a good strong partnership with HR).

So report the incident as soon as possible -- in writing. Protect yourself and your company.

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