What Do I Do When My Employee Asks Me to Keep Their Harassment Complaint Quiet?
Spoiler: you still have to act on it.
If you’re a manager of employees and this scenario hasn’t happened to you yet, you can anticipate that it’ll eventually happen to you: an employee will come to you with a complaint of harassment, but they’ll follow it up by asking you not to do or say anything about it, usually to the tune of, “I don’t want to cause any problems,” or “I don’t want the other person to get into trouble.”
The problem is, you, as a supervisor or manager with authority, have the legal obligation to act on complaints of harassment, as well as the potential responsibility under your company policy. As a manager in a position of authority with your company, even if that authority is small, you are a representative of the employer and, under the eyes of the law, the employer itself.
So, what do you do when an employee comes to you and says, “If I tell you something, can you keep it quiet?”
Usually, we feel compelled to give the promise when this is asked because we want our employees to feel comfortable coming to us with any problem they have. You’re a manager, after all, and managing your team is more effective when an employee trusts you. But you should resist the urge to make that promise, because you may have to break it.
Under the law, if an employee makes a complaint regarding harassment, discrimination, or illegal activity, you have a responsibility as the employer to act on that knowledge. If you don’t act, and the complaint eventually ends up in court, you may have lost your case by not doing anything about the report, even though the employee asked you not to.
If an employee asks you to promise not to do or say anything with information they’re about to give you, you should simply ask what the information is first, or, if you’re not comfortable with that tactic, you can tell them up front that it depends on what it is because you have certain legal obligations.
What if an employee doesn’t give you any warning about their intent to keep information between the two of you? Sometimes an employee will explain what’s going on and then plead with you to keep the information under wraps. In this case, and in the case where the employee pre-warned you and you explained that you could not make any promises, you now will want to tread carefully to ensure that the employee knows you’ll treat their complaint with care.
You want to start by thanking the employee sincerely for coming forward to report the other party’s behavior and let them know that you take the matter very seriously.
Explain to the employee that under the law and/or company policy, you have an obligation to do something about the behavior they’re reporting to you, but that company policy is to complete an investigation of all complaints with as much confidentiality as possible, so long as the investigation can still be thoroughly completed.
Also, be sure to let your employee know that retaliation for bringing a complaint is against company policy and that if the alleged harasser retaliates, he or she can be disciplined further for that retaliation.
The best thing you can do to maintain trust in the face of this is to act swiftly and fairly and to watch for signs of retaliation, as this is usually the root fear for employees who don’t want to make any waves.
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