Sexual harassment can cause a real problem at work. It comes not only in the form of quid pro quo (If you sleep with me, you'll get the promotion), but in the form of inappropriate jokes, pornography on the office computers, and touching someone who doesn't want to be touched, in a sexual way.
When an employee reports a claim of sexual harassment, the company is obligated to investigate. Normally that responsibility falls on the Human Resources Department, but the investigation can be done by someone else if the company doesn't have dedicated HR.
Some companies even bring in a consultant or an attorney to investigate such a claim. Depending on the seriousness of the accusation, a company may suspend the accused person from work until the investigation is complete.
This is normal and how an investigation should proceed. But what happens if a coworker makes a sexual harassment complaint against you? Well, if you did harass the person, confess, apologize, promise to never do it again, and hope you don't get fired.
But, what if you didn't do it? False accusations do happen. They don't happen often and sometimes what turns out to be a false accusation was actually completely different perspectives on what happened. But, if you are accused, here is what you need to do.
Cooperate With the Investigation
You didn't do it. You're completely innocent, so instinctively your first reaction is to push back on and stonewall the investigation. The person who accused you may be a horrible person who is determined to destroy your career.
These issues are possible, but you should still cooperate.
Why? Well, first of all, they are going to investigate no matter what. (At least they should. It is true that some companies handle these complaints in an incompetent manner.) Second, you want your side of the story on the record. Third, you want to provide your list of witnesses.
If your accuser is a horrible person, you don't want the witness list to name all of your enemies, with none of the names of your friends and colleagues who can back up your side of the story.
Confess What You Did Do Wrong
Some sexual harassment claims come after a breakup of what was a consensual sexual relationship. If your company has a policy against bosses dating reporting staff (most likely) or coworkers dating and you did have a sexual relationship with your accuser, don't lie about it. Your management will find out. Confess. “Yes, we dated for a period of 6 months.”
Will they still fire you for breaking the rules? Maybe, but you knew that going into the relationship. Additionally, you want to get your name cleared—it's far better that they fire you for breaking a rule than that they fire you for sexual harassment.
If it's something else, like “ I walked by his cube and saw naked women on his computer screen,” you'll need a different approach. If that, frankly, is not true, but you do use your work laptop to view porn at home, management will find out about it so lying won't help your case.
In fact, they probably already had IT look into this before they spoke with you. The key here is to confess what you did wrong.
“Yes, I viewed pornography on my company laptop, but I only did it at home. If you look at the time stamps, you'll see that what Jane is complaining about couldn't have happened.”
Apologize, Even If You Are Innocent
Your joke wasn't inappropriate; it's just that a coworker who is incredibly thin-skinned thought it was. Apologize anyway. You weren't looking somewhere other than into a colleague's eyes. Apologize anyway. Why? Because sexual harassment law is, actually, pretty silly.
It doesn't say, you can't tell dirty jokes, pinch someone's behind, or have sex with your assistant. What it does say is, you can't do any of these things if they are unwanted and the person is offended, and a reasonable person would be offended.
In order for the behavior to become sexual harassment, the behavior must exhibit all three of these conditions.
The problem is, you don't always know what is unwanted until you carry out the behavior. So, apologize and make a mental note that this person is a lot more sensitive than the average person. Let that guide your future interactions.
Hire an Attorney
This is not always necessary. Most of the time, the truth will come out rather rapidly, and the investigation will clear up the charges. However this doesn't always happen, and if the accusations are serious, you could lose your job and your reputation over this accusal.
When the HR department investigates the claim, they aren't required to do so according to criminal court rules. There isn't an impartial jury or a judge that rules evidence as admissible or inadmissible. They have a legal obligation to conduct a fair investigation but they aren't required to conduct a perfect one.
If the accusation is serious enough that you could lose your job over it, you may wish to hire an attorney. If you do, it's critical that the attorney is one who focuses on employment law, particularly employee side employment law. This isn't something that just any lawyer can do. Employment law is complex, and if you're going to hire an attorney, you want a specialist. (www.Nela.org can refer you to an employment attorney in your area.)
This option costs money, of course, and you'll have to pay out of your own pocket. Regardless, though, the cost should be less than the cost of losing your job. Your attorney will know the specific laws in your state or country. He or she will guide you through the process.
Note that you aren't entitled to have your attorney cross-examine other witnesses, or object to the evidence presented. Remember, this isn't a court of law; it's an HR investigation.
What Happens When the Investigation Is Over?
If the investigation finds you responsible, you'll receive some sort of punishment. The punishment can range from a stern, “Do not do this again,” to the termination of your employment. If you believe the termination is unfair and unfounded by the evidence, you'll want your attorney to negotiate an exit from the company.
If the investigation finds that you are not at fault, the accuser could get anything from a “we're sorry about the misunderstanding, but what you experienced was not sexual harassment,” to a stern “do not do this again.” If egregious, the accuser could even find their employment terminated. Yes, companies can fire you for making false claims.
If both of you remain at the company, you may wish not to work near this person. This is understandable. You can certainly ask for a transfer, but your managers may tell you to act like an adult and deal with this situation.
If you think this proximity is too difficult for you to handle, by all means, start looking for a new job and leave your employment. The last thing you want is for this sexual harassment charge to haunt you for the rest of your life. Moving on seems unfair, especially if you are the innocent party, but sometimes it's the best solution to a bad situation.