On Thursday, November 1, Google employees across the world participated in a walkout in response to the company’s handling of sexual harassment and misconduct claims. Many claim Google has treated female workers inequitably for years, and others are outraged that a Google executive was awarded a $90 million exit package even after the company concluded that a harassment claim against him was credible.
Organizers of the walkout produced a list of demands for changing how Google handles sexual harassment and discrimination, including ending forced, private arbitration in such cases. Organizers also requested publication of a transparency report on instances of sexual harassment, further disclosures of salaries and compensation, an employee representative on the company board, and a chief diversity officer who could speak directly to the board.
So what can companies learn from this walkout? How should they handle claims of harassment or discrimination? A first step is to ensure the company has well-crafted anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies. The company should be clear on its zero tolerance policy for all forms of harassment, discrimination, violence, and retaliation. A useful policy will define important words and phrases, and provide examples where appropriate.
Companies facing harassment or discrimination claims should take reports seriously, and treat complaining parties with respect. Complaining parties should be assured that retaliation is strictly prohibited, and any such concerns should be brought to the investigator immediately.
Companies should promptly and thoroughly investigate complaints of harassment or discrimination. Investigations must be neutral and impartial, and should be conducted by someone who has been properly trained on the topic. If a company does not have an appropriate internal investigator, it can hire from outside. Investigations can include:
· Interviews with the complaining party
· Interviews with the accused employee
· Interviews with other employees, witnesses, and third parties who may have relevant information
· Review of relevant policies and procedures
· Review of emails, text messages, notes, memos, and other relevant communications
· Review of personnel files of the involved parties
While maintaining impartiality and without accusation, the investigator may advise the accused not to contact the complaining party regarding the complaint during the investigation, and not to engage in conduct that is or appears to be retaliatory. Companies may further consider encouraging those involved to maintain the confidentiality needed for a thorough investigation but cannot issue strict prohibitions (which could violate rights under the National Labor Relations Act).
If a company is concerned about the severity of claims and length of time needed to fully investigate, it may opt to take protective measures such as:
· Placing the accused on paid or unpaid leave, pending the outcome of the investigation
· Allowing the complainant paid time off during the investigation
· Altering work assignments so that the accused does not work directly with or supervise the complainant
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides additional guidance on investigating harassment and discrimination claims, with examples of questions for the complainant and other witnesses: https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/harassment.html
One of the most important things a company can do in light of harassment and discrimination claims is to consult experienced counsel. Please reach out to myHRcounsel with questions.
This blog article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Consult legal counsel with questions concerning specific facts and circumstances.
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