Falsely Accused of Sexual Harassment

Question:

I was falsely accused of sexual harassment. What do I do now?

Signed,

Worried


Answer:

Dear Worried:

Your actions will depend upon the severity of the complaint and potential results if the organization decides you did, in fact, sexually harass someone. (Whether you agree with that result or not.)

If you think you will be fired,suspended or demoted or could be sued by the individual, you probably should consult an attorney right away so you can be certain about the statements you make and the correct approach to take.

However, whether you consult an attorney or not, you will benefit from the following general responses:

1. Talk as little about this as possible except to say, in a calm way, something like, “I’m not guilty of harassment and I’m confident that will be shown after it’s investigated.”

The more you talk about it, the more potential witnesses there are to things you say about the situation, the more your managers or others will think you are complaining about the investigation and the more the other person can claim you are slandering her. So, keeping a low profile is obviously important.

2. Take an active but appropriate role in the investigation. First, gather information you want an investigator, HR person or your manager to consider. If the complaint involves a conversation or multiple conversations, develop a dialogue or several dialogues that reflect what was actually said–like a screenplay with your name and your words and her name and her words, back and forth. That can be invaluable for an attorney and also is useful for your purposes.

Include notes about tone and facial expressions or anything else that describes the setting and situation. Your goal is to recreate on paper the conversation that was complained about–or at least a few of them.

You don’t have tapes of those conversations, but a written re-creation is a way to help investigators or your managers “hear” what was said…at least from your perspective. It won’t be what she says was said, if she is falsely accusing you. But it might actually be fairly close–just subject to interpretation.

3. Consider having a person whose opinion you trust look at the dialogue and give you an opinion about whether or not they think the remarks or actions were inappropriate. Sometimes this helps by either reinforcing for yourself that you were not wrong–or sadly helping you see that you did say or do something inappropiate, and you will have to wait and hope that your other good work will offset this situation.

4. Gather a list of witnesses to anything you said or did directly involving the complainant. Don’t talk to them about it, just have their names ready. If someone has heard you talk about the complainant in a positive way or heard you discussing how to improve your working relationships with her, list them as well.

This is when not having said a lot of negative things can be helpful. But, of course, often these complaints culminate weeks, months or years of conflict–so both sides have said negative things. If you think you know someone who would testify that the complainant has gossiped about you unreasonably or heard the complainant strategize about how to get even with you, list those people as well and make sure they are interviewed as part of the investigation.

If you are a supervisor for the person accusing you and you have written appropriately positive things about the person, copy those and submit them to show that you were balanced in your approach.

The bottom line on that is provide the information that supports your views about what happened, rather than leaving it to someone else to decide who to talk to or what to review. They might not know it if you don’t guide them to it.

An attorney will want all of that anyway, so if you do get to that point, you will need it.

5. Do not say more than necessary about the complaint and if you genuinely did not do anything that could fit the allegation of sexual harassment or gender bias, just say that and stop. However, do not have a negative approach to the investigation or the investigator and do not put them in a bad situation by trying to get their sympathy or support. (You likely know that already, I just wanted to remind you!) For example, there is no point in acting huffy about it, but there is also no point in trying to get the investigator to give you an indication that he or she thinks the complaint is false. Just act very professional and appropriately concerned, but let them do their work without your personal conversations to them interfering.

If the person investigating knows you, he or she will feel awkward anyway, so your professional response will be noted and appreciated.

6. This last part is sometimes difficult to take, but it is truthful. Almost always something opened the door to allow the complainant to think the complaint would be considered valid. You may not have intended it and it may be exaggerated incredibly or even completely a lie–but nearly always there was something going on that led to it.

At the very least there was an unresolved conflict or back and forth dislike that increased to the point of someone wanting revenge against you. Resolve not to let things get to that point again and to work with a trusted advisor or friend to help you prevent it.

I’m not saying you were at fault or that the other person is a victim of anything–just that my experience is that almost all of these situations could have been prevented. And, they could be prevented without either one having to give in to the other one or accept being treated badly. It requires some self-discipline, self-censoring and sometimes avoidance, but it can be done.

On the other hand, I have talked to people who swore they did or said nothing wrong, when I had a letter or video tape to show just the opposite. So, it could be the person complaining IS justified but you simply don’t agree. Time will tell how it all is viewed by others.

All that being said, your first step is to know the exact nature of the complaint, keep a low profile while it’s being investigated, gather your own investigatory material–and talk to an attorney if there is enough at stake to justify that expense.

Best wishes as you work through this difficult time. If you wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.