When an employee accuses a colleague or manager of sexual harassment, the investigation is often handled within the company. In some cases, companies will bring in an independent investigator to help ensure that the investigation is impartial — perhaps because the person accused is a high-level executive. Organizations take these complaints seriously, as they should. They can face considerable liability and damage to their reputation.
If you’re the person accused of sexual harassment, you need to take the accusation seriously. Perhaps you made comments to a co-worker that were inappropriate. If you’re guilty of the behavior you’re accused of, confess to it, apologize and commit to never let it happen again — even if you think it was no big deal.
Your employer may take disciplinary action, including terminating you. If you did something that was a violation of company policy, such as dating a subordinate or having inappropriate images on your computer, you’ll have to face the consequences.
Even if you’re going to be terminated for your behavior, you may be able to negotiate the terms of your exit. You may ask the company to give you neutral references. You may even be able to get a severance package. You might benefit from having an attorney help you if your career, financial future and reputation are on the line.
What if you’re innocent? For whatever reason, someone has accused you of something you didn’t do. It’s still essential to cooperate with your employer’s investigation. Answer their questions. If you have colleagues, friends or others who can back up your side of the story or act as character witnesses, give them those names.
Sometimes, innocence isn’t clear-cut. For behavior to be considered sexual harassment, it must be unwanted; a reasonable person must find it offensive and the person involved must be offended.
Perhaps you regularly joked around with your staff, and you had no indication one person found your jokes or language offensive until they reported it. Apologize, acknowledge their feelings and promise to stop. If you express contrition, you may well get off with a note in your personnel file.
A sexual harassment allegation can be frightening, regardless of what the truth of the situation is. It may be wise to consult with an employment law attorney to help protect your rights and seek the best possible outcome.