While conducting harassment investigation training, I have been asked many times, “Are we required to investigate if we receive an anonymous letter or email reporting possible harassment?” The real conundrum is whether an email or voicemail meets the definition of a complaint if there is no identifiable complainant. Still, I would advise against putting it in a drawer (or the round file) and forgetting about it. As we discussed in Part 3 (Five Questions to Determine if an Investigation is Required) an employer is required to perform an investigation anytime it is determined that harassment may be happening within the company. Therefore, answering the five questions should be the first step. IMPORTANT…If the letter, email or voicemail includes a physical threat, please contact the police for assistance.
Once it is determined that the complaint itself refers to behaviors that would require an investigation, it is time to put on your investigators hat. In order to conduct a proper investigation, you must be able to determine who may be the victim of the harassment, or at least which department or location is affected. The answers to the following questions will help you make that determination.
Complaint by letter:
- Is there a return address on the envelope?
- Is there a postage mark that identifies the city where the letter was sent?
- If so, can the city stamp help narrow the field of possible complainants?
- Does the letter include slang or verbiage indicating education level, culture or age?
- Does the letter include information that pertains to employees in a specific department or location?
Complaint by email or voicemail:
- If sent to a business email or voicemail, can your IT department assist with locating the sender?
- If sent to a personal email address or voicemail, can the recipient provide a list of employees that would have access to personal contact information?
- Was the email or voicemail sent during business hours?
- Does the email or voicemail include slang or verbiage indicating education level, culture or age?
- Does the email or voicemail include information that pertains to employees in a specific department or location?
The answers to these questions should help determine which step to take next, which would likely be a complete investigation. However, it is possible that the complaint is so vague that there is too little information to go on. In that case, document the steps you took to identify the complainant, interview the accused party and document the interview, and keep the confidential file secured unless or until further action is required.
As a final step in the process, remember the importance of MBWA (management by walking around). The best way to be aware of what is going on in the company is to walk through the workplace, listen to and chat with employees, and remain approachable at all times. Open conversation often reduces the chance of a claim being filed at a later time.