Managing the Financial Side of Commercial Fleets

5 Tips to Avoid an EEOC Harassment Investigation

Every employee harassment claim must be handled properly or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may be called in to investigate. As part of company management, fleet managers must also be aware of the issue and how to handle complaints.

September 2009, by Richard Alaniz

Did you know the federal government has an agency whose purpose is to sue businesses for sexual and racial harassment? The agency - the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) - has been busy.

In 2008, the EEOC and its state and local affiliates, received 32,535 claims of harassment, including 13,867 sexual harassment charges. The commission settled 25,910 of those claims in 2008. "Settling" means the agency recovered almost $75 million from businesses like yours. An additional 32,690 charges of retaliation were filed with the EEOC last year. And early projections suggest the number will go even higher in 2009.

How much would it cost you or your company?

Harassment May Be Fleet Issue

Responsible for the management and performance of hundreds or thousands of company vehicles, not the personal behavior of the drivers of those vehicles, you may not realize how this issue fits within your job description, believing perhaps employee harassment is simply an HR matter. But, as a member of your company's management, you are accountable when involved directly or indirectly in such situations:

■ A member of your staff tells you of alleged harassment by another employee on your staff or in another department.

■ An employee from another department tells you of alleged harassment by someone on your staff or in another department.

■ Your behavior is considered alleged harassment by a staff member or an employee in another department.

As a manager, you are accountable to report to the appropriate company official any instance of alleged harassment.

"Internal complaints about unlawful harassment give the employer the chance to correct problems before they turn into lawsuits," said EEOC Acting Regional Attorney Debra Lawrence in the agency's press release. "Employers have an obligation to take prompt and effective measures to stop harassment in the workplace. If the employer instead does the wrong thing and terminates an employee who complains about harassment, then the EEOC will take action."

If you don't want to be another trophy on the EEOC's wall, you must take action now, before an agency letter is dropped on your desk. The following are some practical tips to improve your response to harassment in the workplace.

Develop Complaint Procedures

Most employees don't start out wanting to sue their employer; they just want the harassment to stop. But an employer can't stop something he or she isn't aware of. Find out who your company's HR staff designates as a point person for harassment investigations or choose a trusted supervisor to serve in that role. The ideal candidate is an experienced supervisor with whom employees will feel comfortable approaching and speaking candidly.

Consult your company's HR department about training that person on harassment in general. Many law firms offer seminars to help supervisors recognize and manager harassment complaints. And most importantly, make sure all of your employees know who is the point person.

Establish a Code of Conduct

Most corporate HR departments have in place policies regarding employee behavior, particularly harassment. Make sure your staff is aware of these policies. Otherwise, draft a strong, consistent policy prohibiting all types of harassment at your workplace and distribute to each employee. You might consider calling a staff meeting to discuss the new policy and answer employee questions. A meeting will also help gauge how well your employees understand what is expected of them.

Such policies should stress that employees found to violate the policy are subject to discipline up to and including termination. The policy should also clearly state that no employee will be subject to any disciplinary action for reporting a complaint of harassment.

Respond Immediately to Every Complaint

Once a policy is in place, follow it. For employees who allege harassment, feeling ignored by management only makes them more aggrieved and thus more likely to go to the EEOC. Your investigator should reach out to the complaining employee as soon as the complaint is filed. A formal investigation should begin as quickly as possible, and it should be clear to both accuser and alleged harasser they will have a chance to tell their sides of the story.

The investigator should make clear, up-front, to the complaining employee that maintaining confidentiality is important and will be honored to the extent it does not impair a full and fair investigation of the allegations. However, the alleged harasser must be told of the charges, and other employees who may have witnessed the questionable behavior could be interviewed as part of the investigation.

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