Workplace Discrimination 2

Harassment and discrimination complaints are among the most sensitive and difficult issues for HR professionals to handle. When a harassment or discrimination complaint is made, the HR department must act quickly and professionally to resolve the matter in a way that’s satisfactory to the employee presenting the complaint and protects the company from a possible litigation.

One of the more difficult aspects of these kinds of complaints is confidentiality. Private information communicated by an employee to the HR department must be kept confidential. At the same time, if an employee comes forth with a harassment or discrimination complaint, steps must be taken to investigate the claim. And this may mean having to disclose some of the employee’s confidential information.

What if an employee makes a claim of harassment or discrimination, but asks that no action be taken to investigate it? This presents quite a challenge, since, while you must consider the employee’s request, you also have a responsibility to the company and to all of the employees to fully investigate any and all complaints. And even if it’s requested, HR shouldn’t promise complete confidentiality, since investigating the complaint usually means involving other employees and managers. You should let the employee know that the HR department is responsible for investigating the complaint, not only in order to resolve the issue at hand, but also to help others who may be having similar experiences. However, you can assure the employee that confidential information will only be shared on an absolute need-to-know basis.

One of the most sensitive complaints is that of sexual harassment. The HR department must make sure that employees feel they can come forward if they feel they have been sexually harassed at any point, and to treat these complaints with the utmost sensitivity, confidentiality, and professionalism.

You also need to make sure that no discrimination occurs because an employer wishes to avoid potential sexual harassment complaints. For instance, an employer in a traditionally male-dominated industry such as construction, mining, or drilling, may be wary of hiring female workers for fear of facing sexual harassment complaints that could arise from a woman in an all-male environment. HR must tread carefully here since not hiring women for this or any reason is considered discrimination and is illegal according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), because it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Discrimination and harassment are harmful to employees and to the company. One of the most important tasks for HR is to work to prevent these types of complaints, and, if and when they occur, to know exactly how to handle them.

Preventative Measures

To help avoid these kinds of problems, HR departments should consider taking the following preventative actions.

  • Establish a clear harassment policy. Developing and distributing a company policy on discrimination and harassment to all employees, perhaps as part of their onboarding and in their employee handbooks, will make it clear that the company will not tolerate discrimination or harassment, that every claim will be investigated fully, and that wrongdoers will face severe consequences, including termination.
  • Set up clear procedures. Establish a clear procedure for filing complaints, so that employees know exactly what to do if they are faced with such a situation. Also, it’s important to clearly outline a process for investigating and resolving complaints.
  • Train employees, supervisors, and managers. It’s critical that all of the company’s employees know they have the right to work in an environment that’s free from discrimination and harassment and that they fully understand the company’s policies on these issues.

Action Steps

If a discrimination or harassment complaint is filed, there are several things that HR departments should do.

  • Really listen to the employee filing the complaint, without judgment.
  • Don’t dismiss the complaint simply because you don’t think the type of behavior described is possible or could be happening at your company.
  • Recognize that a complaint could involve harassment and/or discrimination based on a number of factors such as gender, race, age, sexual orientation, etc.
  • Take all complaints seriously; even if the employee has made complaints in the past. Each and every complaint should be taken seriously.
  • Never retaliate against the accuser—it is against EEOC law. Forms of retaliation can include demotion, pay cuts, different treatment, termination, etc.
  • Keep the complaint confidential and only share information when and with whom it is absolutely necessary.
  • Take action quickly, and begin an investigation as soon as the complaint is filed.
  • Conduct a thorough investigation of any complaint, by interviewing the parties involved and any potential witnesses, and gathering and examining the evidence.
  • Keep a full record of the investigation, detailing the steps taken, interview results, and the final decisions made and actions are taken.
  • Consider hiring an outside party to conduct the investigation, such as a law firm or consulting agency. Their experience can be useful especially when you are dealing with high-profile situations or when there’s a potential for criminal charges.
  • Enforce the appropriate disciplinary action if the investigation proves that the accused employee did in fact engage in discriminating or harassing behavior. This may range from a warning or suspension to termination of employment and/or criminal charges.


  • Donna Towson says:

    I think that the problem with workplace harassment is that the victim is often so intimidated that is afraid to speak up. It reminds me of school bullying, but if in that case we can cast the blame on immaturity and hope that those kids will change in future, but we shouldn’t put up with workplace bullying. I think employers understand that if cases of harassment arise in their company not only the victim suffers but the whole organization.

  • Jeffry Page says:

    What impresses me is the fact that no matter how hard monetary costs of workplace harassment are, such cases do not become scarce. Apart from the fact that harassment is to say the least unpleasant and litigation is very expensive, companies with cases of harassment suffer from higher turnover rates and retention problems, which also adds to expenses!

  • Tracy Burton says:

    I agree that harassment preventative measures should be carried out in every organization, but sometimes they don’t help, because if the employee causing problems is a bad egg and love to bullying is in their blood they will stop at nothing! Sometimes they even have the guts to say things like: We were just joking, and everyone knows that!

  • Victoria says:

    How do you deal with discrimination claims when you are the administrator/manager who answers solely to a board of directors? My employer has been systematically making veiled threats of demotion, transfer to another work-site, and even possible termination if I don’t sign the new policy which includes a 2 year non-compete clause preventing me from seeking employment without their permission and we are a non-profit providing low-income housing at a HUD insured project. They are making changes without HUD’s knowledge and have forbidden me from talking to HUD or tenants. I have one week to sign the new policy, accept being demoted and supervised by another woman with no housing experience and I have over 17 years experience. She has been with the company approximately one year (against HUD’s approval) and I have been in my position for over five years. Can I still file a claim with EEOC or DFEH if they only have eight employees? Also, can I file wrongful termination if they fire me for not signing their policy? BTW I am a 61 year old black female & the new manager is a white female 58. She will also become my supervisor.

  • Brian says:

    Victoria, I would suggest you contact a lawyer immediately for this kind of advice. However there are two sides of the same coin and non-competition clauses which prevent an employee to find another job in the same field for a while after contract termination are usually compensated with good money and this situation can actually turn to your advantage.

  • Bernadette says:

    I would like to file a complaint against my boss for discrimination with our HR department. I that the right place to start?

  • Andreea Hrab says:

    Filing a complaint against an employer usually requires that the employee follow specific steps. First, they should file their complaint statement with the internal human resources (HR) department if possible. Filing with HR can often provide a temporary or makeshift solution to the problem.

  • Shirleymcgee says:

    I filed a sexual harassment claim against my immediate supervisor at my job. H/R is conducting a investigation. Should I still report this to EEO

  • Andreea Hrab says:

    Hi Sherley,

    Thank you for sharing this with us, we hope the delicate situation is solved by your HR department.
    Reporting the facts to the EEO is strictly your personal decision, but you should take into consideration that filing a report with them has a time limit, which might vary from state to state. You can contact one of their counselors as an additional safety measure.

  • Anonymously furious says:

    I have very interesting question. I am Transgender MTF, dress how I feel best associated everyday, and approached my HR team 10 mos. ago asking if they could provide training for management and floor supervisors on how to properly transgendered individuals. I was met with “be patient” and saw no action/results, therefore not trusting in going to them for assistance. That is a part of HR’s responsibilities, correct?

  • Anonymously furious says:

    Address us personally while working, stop calling us sir, dude, buddy, pal etc….
    sorry accidentally skipped that part.

  • Torn says:

    I heard my boss(black woman) ask what the candidate for the job looked like (she was on vacay when they did the interview). My coworker said she was white. Then my boss said she didn’t want her and she would have to be placed in another building. I was offended and walked out. I’m afraid telling hr will make me look like a “troublemaker”, especially considering I made a discrimination complaint about another lady 2 years ago that resulted in her termination. I’m already almost guaranteed a job in a different department (with more pay)that I applied for while my boss was on vacay. That’s actually why they were interviewing someone. I also found out the candidate was referred by the CEO. I’m a felon and I really like my company and want to stay with them long term. I’m well liked and have created a positive rep around campus. ( I work at a large residential treatment facility for youth) I want to go to the quality
    department eventually. I’m afraid if I tell on her I will be stuck in
    the position I’m soon to b transferred to. My boss has been with the company 30 years and is super unprofessional. This took the cake though. What should I do?!?!

  • Chris says:

    It seems like you are in the position that many workers find themselves when they see discrimination, illegal, or unethical actions at work. Do you say something and risk your own career or do you remain silent?

    You said you spoke up 2 years ago and that resulted in a termination, so it seems as if your HR department takes these things seriously. I wonder if there is a way to anonymously file a complaint?

    If not, you have to ask yourself 2 questions; can you live with yourself if you stay silent or can you live with the outcomes if you speak up?

    This is real and unfortunately, we can not tell you what to do because it is ultimately your decision to make and live with. Of course, some people reading this may say, go to HR and launch another complaint, but it is a very difficult decision with ramifications.

    Maybe talk it over with your family and make the best decision that you can comfortably live with.

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