Manager’s Guide to Handling Allegations of Harassment

What is harassment?

  • Harassment is any form of unwelcome conduct based on a protected status.
    Protected status includes race, color, religion, sex (including transgender status, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), marital and parental status, national origin, age (above 40), disability, or genetic information. Harassment is unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
  • Sexual harassment includes any unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other unwelcome verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature.
    Offensive conduct that may be considered harassment may include offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put­downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.

What are my responsibilities?

  • If you see employees or other managers acting inappropriately, report it immediately; don’t assume it is not your responsibility.
    Even if no allegation of harassment is reported directly to you, you should report any inappropriate conduct that you witness. Every employee of the Department has an ethical obligation to report instances of misconduct, including retaliation and harassment.
  • If an employee reports harassment to you, you need to seek guidance from your servicing HR Office and SOL.
    Failure to act swiftly in response to harassment allegations can lead employees to believe the Agency is unwilling to take allegations of harassment seriously and can also result in liability against the Agency.
  • If an employee reports harassment to you, provide the reporting employee the name of an EEO Counsellor.
    Tell the employee about his or her various options. An employee who raises allegations of harassment has a right to file an EEO Complaint. If an employee makes an allegation, you should ensure that he or she knows about their rights to contact an EEO Counsellor. You might also consider referring the alleged victim to their servicing HR Office, the IG and the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
  • If an employee reports harassment, do not require the person reporting harassment to meet with the alleged harasser to “talk things over.”
    Requiring the alleged harasser and the alleged victim to discuss the allegations could be seen as you not taking the allegations seriously and continuing the harassment. The alleged victim could accuse you of retaliation for requiring him or her to meet with the alleged harasser.
  • If an employee makes allegations which appear criminal in nature, immediately report the allegations to law enforcement and tell the employee you are doing so.
    If an employee reports an assault by another employee, he or she is reporting a crime. Treat the allegation accordingly and report the allegation to appropriate law enforcement officials. If you have any questions about the appropriate response for management in these circumstances, contact the Office of Inspector General and the Office of the Solicitor. Time is of the essence when an assault is reported, so act promptly!
  • If an employee reports being harassed, immediately separate the person reporting harassment from the alleged harasser, but do NOT move the victim.
    The Agency is legally required to take prompt action to ensure that sexual harassment does not continue once reported. This includes instructing the alleged harasser to have no interactions with the alleged victim. Taking immediate steps to separate the reporting employee from his or her alleged harasser is imperative. However, it is NEVER appropriate to move or transfer the alleged victim of harassment unless he or she specifically asked to be moved. Moving the alleged victim may be considered to be retaliatory.

    Here are some options that managers may take to separate the alleged victim from the alleged harasser:

    • Always instruct the alleged harasser to have no interactions with the alleged victim.
    • If the alleged harasser is in the chain of command of the alleged victim, change the reporting chain of the alleged victim.
    • Detail the alleged harasser to another office or unit.
    • Change the alleged harasser’s schedules or duties to avoid interactions with the alleged victim.
    • Require the alleged harasser to telework.
    • In some instances, placing the alleged harasser on administrative leave may be appropriate, but only with the approval of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Capital and Diversity.

      For any of these options, it is important for managers to document the non­retaliatory reasons for any change or move and to ensure that the alleged victim is protected from retaliation.

  • Do not make judgments about the veracity of the allegations before a neutral investigation has been conducted.
    As a manager, you should neither assume that the alleged harasser is guilty nor that the alleged victim is untruthful. Treat each allegation the same regardless of who is making the allegation and who has been named as the alleged harasser. Also remember that, even if you personally would not find the alleged conduct to be serious or harassing in nature, another person might. Before an investigation is completed, it is not your role to judge whether the conduct challenged legally rises to the level of sexual harassment.
  • Immediately arrange for an independent investigation of allegations of sexual and serious non­sexual harassment.
    Consider having an outside entity conduct an independent investigation when allegations of sexual harassment are reported or when allegations of non­sexual harassment involve serious misconduct. Having the supervisory chain investigate the allegations of harassment may be viewed by your employees as the Agency policing itself. The Department is developing new protocols regarding investigations of harassment. Until such time as the new protocols are distributed, contact HR and SOL regarding your options for having the necessary investigation conducted.
  • Maintain the confidentiality of the alleged victim to the extent possible; share information only with those with a “need to know.”
    A frequent mistake that managers make after allegations of harassment have been made is to disclose that information with fellow managers and supervisors. Reporting allegations of sexual harassment is important, but make sure the disclosure of the allegations is directed only to persons with a need to know the information. Offices with a need to know would include HR, EEO, SOL, CADR, OIG or law enforcement, and any manager in the chain of command who has been designated as a proposing or deciding official for disciplinary action against the alleged harasser.
  • Cooperate fully with any investigation into harassment.
    Managers should ensure that their employees and managers cooperate with, and are available to provide information to, investigators who are investigating reports of harassment. Your primary goal as a manager or supervisor should be to have the truth revealed. You would not be acting in the Agency’s best interest if you try to prevent harassing conduct from being identified and investigated.
  • If the investigation substantiates the claim of harassment, hold the harasser accountable consistent with due process and Department policies.
    The best way to gain the trust of your employees is to hold employees accountable when misconduct occurs. You, as manager, are responsible for ensuring that your employees adhere to the laws prohibiting harassment. Consult with HR and SOL before taking disciplinary action against employees accused of sexual harassment. They can walk you through the process.

What can I do to create a harassment free environment?

  • Discuss with your staff on a regular basis the importance of providing a harassment-free workplace.
    Creating a change in culture starts at the top. It is your responsibility to remind your employees of their obligations to create a workplace free of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
  • Ensure employees are aware of their options to report incidents of harassment and that EEO Counsellor posters are prominently displayed in every floor of every office and in conspicuous places.
    The Agency is required by law to post notices to employees of their EEO rights.