There have been two huge jury verdicts against employers in Iowa over the last year. One was for $12 million dollars in Des Moines back in August and the other was for $1.4 million in Chickasaw County. In the Des Moines case, the female plaintiffs alleged that their complaints to their employers about harassment fell on deaf ears. In the Chickasaw County case, the plaintiff alleged she was disciplined after complaining about harassment. These are great examples of a couple of the top mistakes employers make regarding employee complaints: ignoring the complaint, failing to perform a prompt and thorough investigation, and allowing retaliation.
(1) If an employee complains about harassment, thoroughly investigate their allegations. Use the “who, what, when, where, how and why” method of investigating. Who said (or did) what and when? Who saw it/heard it? Keep good notes of your investigation including all names, places and dates. Make sure your notes are dated—this will be key in establishing that you promptly investigated. A prompt investigation is an employer’s legal duty!
(2) What’s the outcome? Did the harassment happen? If so, issue swift punishment that is reasonably calculated to end the harassment. Document it!
(3) Follow up (round one). Inform the complaining party that you completed the investigation and found in his or her favor and tell them you have issued a remedy (no details, that’s confidential). Inform the complaining party that if the harassment happens again to report it immediately and you will deal with it. If it happens again, institute stronger disciplinary measures than the first time—because the remedy you used the first time did not stick. That means it cannot be reasonably calculated to end the harassment the second time around. If you could not substantiate the harassment, tell the complaining party, but tell them that if they feel they are being harassed again, to report it. And if they report it again, investigate again! You cannot assume that because there was no evidence of harassment the first time, there’s no harassment the second time.
(4) No retaliation! When you conclude your investigation, tell the complaining party and all witnesses that the employer will not tolerate retaliatory conduct against them for complaining/participating in the investigation. Tell all witnesses and the accused harasser that the employer will discipline anyone who punishes the complaining party and the participating witnesses.
(5) Follow up (round two). Often after an employer just completes an investigation, they are weary from the process and the retaliation complaint gets blown off. Big mistake! The federal agency that investigates retaliation reports that retaliation complaints are up 59% in a decade. So, if any employee engages in retaliation, you must investigate, determine if it happened, issue a remedy if it did and remind everyone that the employer will not tolerate retaliation. (See steps one through four!!)
If you have any questions regarding the top mistakes employers make when employees complain or employment matters, please contact Amy L. Reasner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-365-9101.