Our human resource department received an anonymous letter via suggestion box alleging that a manager from another department is sexually harassing his young assistant. There were no other details, evidence, or witnesses except the words: “My boss (name withheld) is a devil. He must go to hell for lifting my skirt and for touching my shoulder every now and then. I am a victim. Please help!!!” How would you advise on dealing with this situation? — White Lily.
I suppose there are only three persons who are privy to this issue. This includes you, assuming you are from the HR department, the victim, and the manager-harasser. As Benjamin Franklin said: “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” When you’re handling an employee discipline issue, you must keep this secret from start to finish.
The principle in law, justice, and fair play is that if there’s no victim, no offense was committed. In other words, no corpse, no murder. To extend the analogy further — no complaint, no issue. Of course, there are exceptions to this in extreme cases. Another theory holds that it’s better to acquit thousands of guilty people than to put an innocent man to death.
You’re treading on dangerous ground. Therefore, avoid any legal complications that may arise out of this poison-pen letter, which has no probative value. It won’t be accepted by any court of law. Technically, there should be no issue to begin with. Without a complainant or witness, the case should be dropped pronto. But what if it’s true? Would you turn a blind eye to the victim simply because she doesn’t have the courage to report the matter to you?
What if that manager accuses you of creating friction within his department? What if he asks why you are paying attention to unfounded allegations? If you pay attention to all accusations, how will you prevent other employees from doing the same thing?
A solution to this conundrum is not out of reach. As an HR practitioner, you should be the first line of defense in deterring sexual harassment and preventing it from escalating. You need to be proactive. Here are some pointers that may guide you in managing this particular case and all other cases in the future:
One, review or reestablish a policy on sexual harassment. You can take your cue from a 25-year old law, Republic Act 7877 or the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995. You can adopt its definition and make it part of the company’s Code of Conduct. Note, however that even in the absence of such provisions in your Code of Conduct, you can still “prosecute” any offender by following the provisions of such law.
Two, remind all workers and managers about such a policy. As soon as the “smoke” comes out, it’s best to issue a circular via bulletin board, e-mail alert, or any other such reminder. You need to make the point that any violation of the law or corporate policy will not be tolerated, subject only to the limitations of due process.
Three, provide a guide on reporting offenses for the victims. Make it clear that a poison-pen letter to management is not the best way. List down all the requirements and provide a template incident report, but make it easy for the victims to file a report to any manager whom they trust or the HR department as the default reporting department.
Four, organize a seminar-orientation on sexual harassment. Do this every three months depending on the population of potential victims or as soon as an ugly rumor begins circulating. Depending on your budget, you can hire a lawyer-specialist, an HR consultant, or invite some officials from the Department of Labor and Employment who can share with you how other companies have handled such cases.
Five, inform the CEO or your department boss about the issue. Your boss may not like being surprised or to hear of the issue from others. Explain the situation right away and your plan to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, regardless of the reliability of the poison-pen letter. More often than not, your plan of action will be accepted.
Last, confer with the alleged offender. This is optional and depends much on the personality of the accused manager or his rank. If that person is known to be abrasive and has a difficult character, it’s better for you not to inform him of the existence of such a letter. Even if you take the high road or do it diplomatically, you may be misinterpreted.
As soon as you hear of a rumor about sexual harassment, you should treat it like an emergency. You must act expeditiously and fairly to both parties. If you keep dragging your feet, you may end up overtaken by events like the victim’s resignation, mass action by other victims, or intervention from the victim’s lawyer or union. Your career may even be at stake.
The circumstances may vary, but in general, you don’t have to accuse the alleged offender or share the letter with him. Again, anonymous letters have no real value and should be discarded right away. But it doesn’t mean sweeping it under the rug. As an HR person, your job is to keep an ear to the ground. Be alert for any issues that could potentially damage work relationships and careers.