With the recent news reports of sexual assault accusations, what do we do if a member of our staff comes out as a victim of sexual assault in the workplace?
Accusations of this nature should be taken seriously. Regardless whether your employee submitted a formal written grievance or just raised a complaint verbally, this should be treated as a grievance. Even if an employee simply shared a story in an informal conversation with a manager or a colleague and the details of the story lead to a suspected sexual assault or harassment of any nature, it would be appropriate to organise a meeting with the employee concerned to inform that what have been disclosed may amount to sexual assault or harassment and you intend to investigate the matter unless the employee objects to your investigation.
In any circumstances, you ought to carry out a reasonable investigation. At the very least, the facts of the matter should be established and the accused person interviewed and asked for an explanation. The complainant may be invited to provide a statement or may need to be interviewed, especially if the circumstances of the complaints are not clear. You would need to interview potential witnesses and take their version of events. If your IT and monitoring systems can yield some useful data, for example, CCTV records, exchange of messages, the relevant data should be extracted from the systems. Your investigation should confidential and care should be taken to protect the identity and dignity of the person complaining as far as it is practicable.
Your investigation may well reveal that there is little substance to the complaint. For example, it may have happened that after your Christmas company meal finished the complainant and the alleged perpetrator proceeded to carry on the festivities in a local pub and the unwanted conduct took place there. In this case it would appear that the events complained about took place purely outside of the workplace and would not constitute your liability, and you will have all the details to back your decision of not taking the complaint further. At the same time, you will have a meeting with the perpetrator to inform this person that although the harassment took place outside of his course of employment, this person can still be personally liable. Your policy may stipulate some circumstances in which specific inappropriate conduct outside of the workplace may give rise to disciplinary proceedings. Conduct of your members of staff in managerial roles are often subject to stricter requirements of their conduct, such as their inappropriate conduct even not in the course of their employment which may still bring the company into disrepute could give rise to disciplinary proceedings. There may be sufficient connection, as in the given example, between the workplace and the conduct outside of the workplace, which will be sufficient for disciplinary action.
In the next article will look in detail into what constitutes sexual assault and actionable harassment.