Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

How to Handle Harassment and Discrimination Complaints

Workplace harassment and discrimination are serious matters for small-business owners. Employees have the legal right to report discrimination and harassment to their employers. Employers should investigate harassment claims immediately. Small businesses may lack the resources to investigate discrimination complaints. In small companies, an investigation by the boss may make tensions worse.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that oversees employment discrimination and harassment. It has a small business resource center for smaller companies needing help handling discrimination and harassment complaints.

This article discusses ways employers can manage discrimination and harassment in the workplace and prevent complaints from rising to the level of lawsuits.

Recognizing Harassment and Discrimination

Most people are familiar with sexual harassment and racial discrimination. A business owner must understand the difference between harassment and discrimination in the workplace and develop policies against each.

Discrimination occurs when businesses treat workers differently in hiring, firing, or other work-related activities based on immutable characteristics. These may include:

  • Race/ethnicity
  • Gender or sexual orientation
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Age

Harassment is persistent unwanted speech or behavior creating a hostile work environment. Harassment can also be allowing such behavior to continue or condoning such behavior by words or actions. Harassing behavior can include, but is not limited to:

  • Teasing, taunting, or improper joking
  • Physical contact, such as pushing or shoving
  • Offensive graffiti, pictures, or cartoons
  • Racial or ethnic slurs, sometimes disguised as jokes
  • Hazing or initiation rituals
  • Demands for sexual favors with or without a quid pro quo, such as demanding sex for a promotion or raise

The Complaint Process

Employees may report harassment and discrimination without fear of retaliation. Both federal and state laws protect workers who file charges of discrimination or harassment. An employer may face serious penalties for ignoring a worker who files such a complaint, including lawsuits and fines. A smart business owner should have a discrimination and harassment policy before the matter arises.

Know the Anti-Discrimination Laws in Your State

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 governs all employment decisions regarding hiring and firing based on protected class status. Most state laws mirror federal law, but some are more restrictive. Review your state and federal laws and incorporate them into your hiring practices.

Seven states mandate sexual harassment training for some private sector employees. They are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, New York, and Washington. The EEOC recommends harassment training for all workers in all employment. Anti-harassment and anti-discrimination guidelines should be part of your employee handbook. This establishes your reporting procedure.

Investigate Complaints Immediately

All employees should know that you will investigate all complaints immediately. Treat all complaints seriously. You should have a complaint form available with your human resources department. Workers should be able to access it anonymously without coworkers' knowledge.

Once you have received a complaint, you should take these steps:

  • Interview the Complainant: Determine the nature of the complaint and the extent of the harassment or discrimination.
  • Interview the Alleged Harasser Separately: Do not disclose the complainant's name. Keep the interview general.
  • Interview Other Workers or Witnesses: If your business is large enough, ask the parties' supervisor.
  • Document Your Investigation: Keep copious notes of all your findings. If there is any other evidence, such as CCTV footage or timecards, keep that as well.

Your investigation will have one of two results:

  • The complaint is valid, and there is harassment or discrimination
  • The complaint is not valid

Now, you must determine how to proceed.

Handling Workplace Harassment and Discrimination

You may want to contact an attorney or the EEOC for advice if the complaint is valid. It depends on the nature of the harassment and how serious it has become. For instance, an older worker might not have realized how a joke affected a new employee. In that case, harassment training and an apology might be sufficient disciplinary action.

On the other hand, a manager might have been coercing younger female workers into sex under threat of termination. This might have been going on for some time. Now, it has become a criminal matter and a workplace discrimination case.

If the complaint is not valid, you will need to tread carefully. Do not assume that the complainant was lying or trying to harm the person accused. You may want to contact the EEOC for suggestions. Assure the complainant that you investigated and cannot confirm the harassment. Do not imply that it does not exist, only that you could not find confirmation.

If the complainant files an EEOC complaint, cooperate with their investigation. As long as your employment practices are federally compliant, you should be in the clear.

Retaliatory Actions

Retaliatory acts are any negative actions taken against a worker after the worker has filed a complaint. These include termination, demotion, refusing a promotion, reducing pay, unnecessary disciplinary action, or reassignment. Avoid anything that might appear retaliatory toward the complainant or the harasser. Whatever disciplinary action you take against the harasser should be comparable to the harm done. If a complaint is invalid, do not retaliate against the complainant.

Get Legal Help to Handle a Harassment or Discrimination Claim

Harassment and discrimination complaints can upend your business. Business owners should know when to investigate and when to call in a third party. If you're unsure how to manage a harassment complaint at your business, discuss your situation with an employment law attorney. Receive personalized legal advice on how best to proceed.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified business attorney to help you prevent and address human resources problems.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Meet FindLaw's trusted provider of business formation solutions:

Let's start your free LLC!

Get worry-free services and support to launch your business starting at $0 plus state fees

Start My LLC
'You want to get it right. ZenBusiness can help.' Mark Cuban, Spokesperson

The #1 rated service by trusted experts

  • Forbes
  • Market Watch
  • Marc Cuban
  • Nerdwallet
  • Investopedia
Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options