If one of your employees approaches a manager complaining about harassment from a co-worker, you need superb interviewing skills to uncover the truth and help protect yourself in the event of a lawsuit. By asking the right questions in the right atmosphere, you can maximize the chance of reaching a fair assessment and minimize the likelihood of further legal complaints once the inquiry is finished and the appropriate action is taken.

You must get accurate information to help safeguard both the company and the staff members involved. This is no easy task – tensions are likely to be high and stories may conflict.

You want to be thorough, fair, and get at the core of the situation. The conclusions need to be accurate and based on as much information as possible. You need to interview the employee making the complaint, the person accused, and other colleagues who may have relevant observations.

Check with your legal advisor for complete guidance. But here is a list of questions suggested by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to help you make an accurate assessment about a charge of harassment, which includes discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age or disability:

Questions for the Person Making the Complaint

  • How did you react?
  • What response did you make when or after the incident occurred?
  • How did the harassment affect you?
  • Has your job been affected?
  • Who else might have relevant information?
  • Was anyone present during the incident?
  • Did you tell anyone about it?
  • Did anyone see you immediately after the incident?
  • Did the person who harassed you harass anyone else?
  • Has anyone else complained about harassment by that person?
  • Are there any notes, physical evidence, or other documentation regarding the incident?
  • How would you like to see the situation resolved?

Questions for the Accused

  • What is your response to the allegations?
  • If the accused employee says the charges are false, ask “why might the complainant lie?”
  • Are there any persons who have relevant information?
  • Are there any notes, physical evidence, or other documentation regarding the incident?

Questions for Witnesses

  • What did you see or hear?
  • When did this occur?
  • How did the accused employee act toward the complainant and others in the workplace?
  • What did the complainant tell you?
  • When did she or he tell you this?
  • Do you have any other relevant information?
  • Do you know anyone else who has relevant information?

Be sure the people being interviewed feel comfortable. Try to hold the interviews in a private, quiet and convenient place without taking telephone calls. Allow about 45 minutes to an hour for each interview. If it lasts longer, it's probably gone off topic and become a gripe session. If you need more time, schedule a second interview.

“Be as objective as possible in addressing this issue, trying to avoid emotional entanglements, and document all the proceedings,” advised Bill Rosado, President of ManagedPAY, a Las Vegas-based payroll and human resources outsourcing firm. “Once you have determined whether the harassment claim was justified, the next step is to decide what action to take. This could be anything from a verbal reprimand, to a recommendation for counseling, to termination of an employee. Show your documentation to your company attorney and ask their advice on what steps you should take to help protect yourself.”

For more information on handling workplace harassment claims, please visit the EEOC website: www.eeoc.gov.