Employer Responses to Sexual Harassment Complaints

Employers generally are held responsible for sexual harassment unless they take appropriate action in response to complaints. Also, employers are held responsible if they knew (or should have known) of the conduct and failed to stop it.


The U.S. Supreme Court decisions make it clear that every employer should have a policy on sexual harassment that addresses such issues as the following:

  • Instructions on how to report complaints, including how to bypass a supervisor if he or she is involved in the harassment

  • Assurances of confidentiality and protection against retaliation by those against whom the complaint is filed

  • A guarantee of prompt investigation

  • A statement that disciplinary action will be taken against sexual harassers, up to and including termination of employment

It is important that all employers, even small ones, have specific sexual harassment complaint procedures and policies that allow a complainant to bypass a supervisor if the harasser is the supervisor.8 If such a complaint process exists and it is not used by the complainant, the employer has a better standing in refuting sexual harassment claims. The HR Perspective discusses a research study on using complaint processes to confront sexual harassment.


All employees, especially supervisors and managers, should be informed that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in an organization. To create such an awareness, communications to all employees should highlight the employer’s policy on sexual harassment and the importance of creating and maintaining a work environment free of sexual harassment. The communications should be ongoing to reinforce to all employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and will be dealt with severely.


Training of all employees, especially supervisors and managers, is recommended. The training should identify what constitutes sexual harassment and alert employees to the types of behaviors that create problems. Analyses of the Supreme Court decisions by legal experts consistently stress that all employers should hold sexual harassment training regularly.10 For smaller employers without formal training programs, this training can be developed by training and human resource consultants, legal counsel, local college human resource professors, or others. But regardless of organizational size, specific training on sexual harassment should be done regularly in all companies.


Once management has knowledge of sexual harassment, the investigation process should begin. Often, to provide objectivity, an HR staff member, a key senior manager, and/or outside legal counsel will lead the investigation. The procedures to be followed should be identified at the time the sexual harassment policy is developed, and all steps taken during the investigation should be documented. It is crucial to ensure that the complainant is not subjected to any further harassment or to retaliation for filing the complaint. Prompt action by the employer to investigate sexual harassment complaints and then to punish the identified harassers aid an employer’s defense. In summary, if harassment situations are taken seriously by employers, the ultimate outcomes are more likely to be favorable for them.