Uh oh! My Manager Received a Harassment Complaint

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One of your managers receives a harassment complaint. Do they know what to do? While harassment complaints are never welcomed, they should be anticipated by your organization’s policies. Not only should your written policy be clear, but you should be certain that your managers know the policy because there is very little legal defense for managers who violate harassment laws or compound the problem by failing to properly respond. Remember, in the eyes of the law, even first level supervisors are an extension of the senior most leaders and owners; thus, when they make a mistake or engage in problematic behavior, the entire organization has made a mistake or engaged in such behavior. 


In your next team meeting, pose the scenarios below and ask the accompanying questions:

Scenario 1: If an employee comes to you and says that they believe they are being harassed, what would you do? What if the employee said they were being bullied rather than harassed?

Scenario 2: You’re having a conversation with an employee who says that he has noticed that the supervisor on his team gives all of the best assignments to the women on the team with whom he flirts. What do you do?

Scenario 3: Two days ago as you’re walking by the break room, you overhear a small group of employees talking about a concert they attended together over the weekend. In particular, they are talking about the artist’s new album and repeating some of the lyrics which refer to women in derogatory terms. Nobody has complained to you. Does anything need to be done?

Scenario 4: You have two employees, one is African American and the other one is Latino.  They have a great relationship and often tease each other. Someone complained after hearing one say to the other, “At least I’m not from a shithole country” as the other walked by saying, “Build the wall!”

Scenario 5: Have you experienced situations like those in scenarios 1 – 4? If so, how have you handled them?

All of these scenarios increase your organization’s liability, tarnish your organization’s reputation, take away lots of time from other priorities, and kick the legs out front under your financial goals. 


If you don’t get clear and quick responses, it’s safe to assume the following:

  • Your managers do not know your policy 
  • Your policy is unclear or doesn’t give adequate direction 
  • Your policy is implemented inconsistently 
  • Your policy is used so infrequently that the team does not realize a policy exists. 

Scenario 1 needs to be investigated to understand what behavior the employee is complaining about.  Sometimes, employees use the word “harassment” to describe behavior that makes them upset, but that behavior isn’t necessarily harassment. Additionally, bullying is behavior that harassment regulations don’t address; however, the behavior shouldn’t be ignored. Further, even if it’s not illegal, it may violate your organization’s policies. 

Scenario 2 needs to be evaluated for a couple different reasons. What might look like mutual or welcomed flirting could be quid pro quo harassment in addition to violating any organizational policies. Even if you learn that the situation is consensual, it certainly isn’t a good management practice and that needs to be addressed – you might actually need to create a policy!

Scenarios 3 and 4 are often the toughest for managers and leaders because they may not even realize that they have an actual harassment complaint. In both of these scenarios, the manager needs to focus on the behavior, not whether there’s a complaint or who is complaining. The unacceptable behavior involves protected classes, which is reason enough to nip these problems in the bud. 

Finally, scenario 5 is critically important! This question tells you what has already taken place on your team! Don’t shy away from the answer! While learning the information may be scary, this is an opportunity to fix existing problems and start reducing liability. This is also an opportunity to repair relationships with your employees and restore their trust in management.

More than anything, your managers and supervisors need to realize that they do not have the option to do nothing! The fact that they know about these situations, regardless of how they became aware of them, puts the organization and their career at risk.  

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