Allegations of sexual harassment are clearly increasing, and impacts of allegations are swift. Organizations and brands can see their long-established reputations altered overnight. Customers or donors can quickly turn elsewhere. Internal culture, external communities and the bottom line all can suffer irreparably.
Boards of Directors can no longer reasonably rely on outdated policies and procedures to quickly and appropriately respond to accusers, staff and the public. Moving decisively is key to giving these accusations the serious consideration they deserve, while also protecting those involved, the organization, management and even the Board itself.
Board Responsibility and Responses to Complaints of Harassment
When claims of sexual harassment surface, it's important the Board ensure the following steps take place:
- Immediately acknowledge the allegation, thank the claimant or person advising the organization about the issue for coming forward, and advise them that the organization will promptly address the claim or issue raised.
- Immediately assemble a team to conduct an independent and fair investigation to determine if the matter should be investigated in-house or by an outside lawyer or consultant based on the seriousness of the allegations and the position of the accused.
- Decide the scope of investigation relative to allegations.
- Advise the claimant, accused and all participants in the investigation that retaliation will not be tolerated.
- Conduct the investigation expeditiously, but thoroughly.
- Keep an open mind and ensure that all relevant evidence is considered before a decision is made.
- Take appropriate remedial action (prompt and proportionate) based on the findings. Do not tolerate a culture of improper conduct regardless of whom the harasser may be.
- Advise both parties of findings and the claimant of remedial action taken, if applicable (degree of specificity will depend on facts and circumstances).
- Take this opportunity to underscore the importance of and the organization's commitment to a workplace free of discrimination and harassment by recirculating the harassment policy, stressing its importance to the organization and conducting harassment training to educate the workforce.
- Monitor for retaliation and take decisive remedial action if there is any retaliation.
- Have a media statement ready in the event the complaint goes public.
- Have statements ready to go to workforce and other stakeholders. Of course, these too will need to be customized.
Board Actions to Help Thwart Major Incidents of Sexual or Other
Other Steps Organizations Should Take to Be Ready for Any Allegation of Harassment (or Other Alleged Legal Wrongs)
About Duane Morris
Duane Morris attorneys for many years have provided EEO training for management, updated EEO and related policies, and counseled clients on the on the implementation and communications of these standards and policies. The Firm has frequently led or assisted with investigations of complaints and provided advice on related issues (and, unlike purely self-conducted investigations, our findings can be protected under attorney-client privilege, depending on our role in the investigation).
Program for Directors and Boards
With the proliferation of sexual harassment allegations, Duane Morris is providing a program to educate Boards on their specific responsibilities, how best to work with management, the roles of Human Resources and Compliance teams, and other developing issues. (Examples: Boards of public companies may be obligated to disclose sexual harassment claims in some circumstances, or else risk shareholder suits or a federal inquiry. Stakeholders in a wide range of organizations often want to know who knew what and when, and how it was handled, particularly when impactful resignations or terminations occur. And the increasing instances of these allegations being made in public, or quickly becoming public knowledge, makes immediate actions all the more important.) Whether at a Board meeting or a special session, Duane Morris attorneys can share insights and best practices specific to directors and Boards addressing claims of sexual harassment.