What do I do if I receive a complaint of Harassment or Discrimination?

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What do I do if I receive a complaint of Harassment or Discrimination?

Always take the complaint seriously and initiate prompt action. These kinds of cases can result in a lawsuit if not handled judiciously.

  • Immediate Response. Promptly initiate a thorough and legal investigation of the complaint. The investigator should be familiar with relevant U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) guidelines as to what is appropriate to ask the accuser, the accused and witnesses.
  • Factual Information. Safe and appropriate questions related to the incident(s) focus on specifics. The investigation should include only facts and not rumor, speculation, or innuendo.
    • What specifically happened?
    • When did the incident(s) occur?
    • Who was involved?
    • Where did the incident(s) occur?
    • Who witnessed the incident(s). 

Conduct interviews of witnesses and any other relevant personnel. Gather other relevant evidence such as e-mails, notes from meetings, time cards and schedules.  Document and date each step of the investigation.

  • Unbiased Investigation. The investigator should listen attentively to all parties relevant to the case to fully document the facts of the complaint. The investigator must remain impartial as the information is discovered and recorded for the case record. Keep in mind that the final investigative report will become a “legal finding” as to the validity of the complaint.
  • Special Considerations. If the complaint is related to sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, make sure the accuser does not remain in a position of potential risk of retaliation throughout the complaint, investigation, and resolution process.
  • Leadership Judgment. Appropriate leaders of the organization receive the full final investigative report to determine the merits of the complaint and what, if any, corrective action is to be taken. The standard is that for an action to be considered  “appropriate,” it must eliminate the possibility of recurrence of inappropriate behavior.  Judgment may include corrective action that ranges in severity from a written warning to termination of employment.
  • Final Dispensation. Document the action taken by leadership and include the judgment with the investigation records. All information related to the complaint must be kept strictly confidential.


  • There is some discussion in other research about not rushing the investigation until a thorough plan is developed to avoid inadvertent and unnecessary missteps that can bite you in the ass before the dust settles.
  • DOL has a lot to say to employees who may feel they are being harassed or discriminated against. Definitions and courses of action. But I could not find a DOL guideline for employers who have received a complaint in how to conductan investigation of the matter. I found some pretty good info from SHRM, such as those below. But I know you know this:



  • Some discussion is presented about who should conduct the investigation, whether an internal or external individual. I suspect that those who find their way to you for assistance may not have a great deal of expertise in house. Often it falls to some hapless and inexperienced HR soul who doesn’t have a clue and, because they know those involved on both sides of the equation, may be biased from the get go.
  • Is confidentiality of information an absolute from the receipt of the complaint through final dispensation and beyond?