What Rights, When Accused of Harassment?

Question:

A family member of mine who is in management was questioned by his superiors asking if he could remember ever doing/saying anything inappropriate to another employee and if he understood what harrassment was. When he replied that he could not think of a single contact where anything was said or done that would fall into these categories he was told he was being put on a paid suspension while they investigated. It has been 6 days and he still does not know what he is being accused of. In fact, he’s being told he’s not being accused by his managers. However, they have removed all access to his computer and e-mail and have requested him to come alone to an offsite location to meet with management and a member of Human Resources. Shouldn’t he know by now at least what he is being accused of? Does he have the right to know? Because it sounds like he’s been convicted already and we don’t know why. Keep in mind this family member has an impeccable record.

Signed,

Worried


Answer:

Dear Worried:

Since, at this point, your relative is not being accused of a crime, there are no legal rights involved. It sounds as though an employee–perhaps someone subordinate to your relative–made a complaint that your relative said and/or wrote things on more than one occasion, that were offensive either sexually, racially or for some other reason.

Such an accusation would have to be investigated, and that usually takes several days, as people are interviewed and computers are accessed and reviewed. (That’s why one should never have personal things on a business computer!)

The organization MUST investigate such an allegation, or find themselves in trouble legally and in civil court processes. And, sending the person home who is being investigated, is often the best way to handle it. Meeting him outside the workplace to talk to him is also a good way to handle it. He won’t have to be seen going into HR for an interview, and it will be neutral territory, which is often less stressful.

Keep this in mind: If there is no evidence, there will be no grounds for further action. If there is evidence of inappropriate communications, and it can’t be explained, the organization has a variety of options for responses, based on the nature of the situation. Some have a no-tolerance policy, but others realize there are circumstances that can make a difference in how even wrongful acts at work should be handled.

If your relative feels the investigation is not being conducted fairly, he might want to get an attorney to represent him, and to contact HR to find out what is happening. Some organizations do not allow an attorney to be present during employee interviews, while others do. At least an attorney could make contact and perhaps find out more. On the other hand, that might be a very expensive, unnecessary action.

There is also the issue that your family member may not have meant to be offensive, threatening or harassing, but was thought to be anyway. He may not feel he did anything wrong, but the evidence might justify disciplinary action.

At least he is being paid during this time. That is scant consolation, but it means that the organization is as anxious to get this over and get him back to work, as he is! Apart from contacting an attorney, he may find he can only wait, and be ready to answer questions about anything the investigation discloses.

Bestwishes to him and to you. He certainly will need support at this point. I hope he is able to work through it and come back strong, whatever the result.

If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe