What To Do When A Federal Employee Alleges Harassment

What should a federal supervisor do when confronted with a sexual harassment complaint? Deal with it quickly. Here is advice from an experienced practitioner.

(Part 1 of 2 articles)

Tick, tick, tick…

If you are a supervisor and a sexual harassment allegation is brought to your attention, think of it as a ticking time bomb. It is in your best interest, and that of your organization, to defuse it quickly and safely. If it were a real bomb, you would undoubtedly be calling 911 immediately and asking for the “bomb squad.” When it comes to sexual harassment allegations, the “bomb squad” is likely to consist of your supervisor, the Human Resources (HR) office, the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office, and perhaps your Counsel’s office.

Having spent most of my career with the Federal government as a supervisor, I recognize that many, probably most, supervisors have more work to do than hours available to accomplish it and are constantly juggling multiple priorities. A large percentage of them are “working supervisors,” meaning that they are responsible for both supervision and technical work. Against that backdrop, it is easy to see how a supervisor who receives a sexual harassment allegation might simply put it in the stack of things to do.

Suppose, for example, that just after you receive a “hot” assignment from your supervisor, with a high priority and a short deadline, one of your employees brings to your attention a sexual harassment allegation. You might think: “I’ll get this high priority project done and then get right on the sexual harassment allegation.” The problem is that another incident may occur while you are working on what you deem to be your higher priority project, or the alleged victim may tire of waiting for your response and file a discrimination complaint. I would argue that a sexual harassment allegation should be considered your highest priority project.

The first thing I would urge you to do is let your supervisor know about the allegation and share with that official your action plan for dealing with it. You want to be on record as addressing the situation quickly and effectively, and if other assigned work will prevent you from doing so, you need to make that clear to your supervisor and request any necessary adjustment in your workload while you pursue the allegation.

You should then quickly contact the HR and EEO offices, either separately or together. Share with them all of the information you have in hand about the situation, which may consist solely of the sexual harassment allegation, and solicit their advice on how to proceed. Often, the next step will be to conduct an “administrative inquiry” in an effort to gather as many facts about the situation as possible.

Whether the supervisor or another party (such as an investigator) conducts the administrative inquiry, the objective is to gather all relevant facts, including statements from witnesses, if any. In a sexual harassment allegation, however, there are often just two “witnesses,” the alleged victim and the alleged harasser. What if the alleged victim’s story and that of the alleged harasser are diametrically opposed and there are no other witnesses? Is the supervisor precluded from acting?

My answer is no. It is generally easier to make a decision when there is more evidence supporting one side of a misconduct allegation than another, such as additional witnesses and/or documents, but a supervisor doesn’t always have that luxury, particularly in sexual harassment cases. Where the “evidence” consists solely of one person’s word versus that of the other, the supervisor may have to determine credibility and act accordingly.

For example, the supervisor may decide that the alleged victim is more credible than the alleged harasser and take action against the latter. Or the supervisor may find that the alleged harasser has more credibility and determine that no action is warranted. Can your decision be challenged?

You bet it can. But then, virtually any decision you make as a supervisor can be contested by an aggrieved employee. My advice is to always confer with the “bomb squad” – HR, EEO and your supervisor – before taking action to resolve a sexual harassment case. And make sure the action you take is within your authority.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.