Regardless of the type of harassment alleged, facing harassment charges at work is frightening. You could lose your job if you are found to have harassed a coworker. However, there are ways to defend yourself that can result in the charges levied against you being found baseless.
Steps for Defending Yourself
A company's human resource (HR) representative, manager or boss typically tells an employee accused of harassment of the accusations made against him. At this point, the accused employee can begin to take steps to defend and protect herself.
Step 1: Schedule a Meeting
The first step after being informed that a coworker has filed harassment charges against you is to schedule a meeting with your HR manager, manager, and the company's boss. If you are a member of a union, also ask that the union send someone to the meeting.
Since the first meeting in which you were told of the charges might not have included everyone, the meeting scheduled upon your request serves as a way to obtain information regarding the charges pending against you from all your superiors and to ensure that everyone knows what is going on.
At this meeting, ask specific questions about the charges, including:
- Who made the charges?
- What are the specifics of the charges?
- What dates did the alleged harassment occur?
- Were there any witnesses to the harassment?
- What type of evidence, if any, was presented against you?
Ask for copies of all evidence and witness statements that were collected and used as the foundation for the harassment charges. If they are not given to you immediately, ask that they be provided by the end of the day so that you may review them and begin to prepare your defense. If necessary, state that you will stop by the HR manager's office at a specific time before the end of the day to pick up the records.
Note that facing harassment charges at work is not a legal proceeding and, as such, the HR manager and your bosses are not required to provide you with any information or documents regarding the charges. However, most will do so if you request them and state that you will not contact your accuser or any witnesses without having the HR representative or your superiors present.
Step 2: Review Documentation and Gather Evidence
Review the documents provided to you and note the dates, times, and types of the alleged harassment. Also, note whether any witnesses were present. Once you've created a list of this information, make two lists of your own: one of documentation to gather to defend yourself and one of witnesses to question.
General Documentation Supporting Your Innocence
Any type of documentation showing that what was alleged either on a certain date or in general did not happen will support your defense. This may include:
- Emails between you, your accuser, or a witness that directly addresses any aspect of the harassment said to have occurred - These are particularly good because they can be printed and are dated.
- Paperwork or other documents refuting a portion or all of the allegations - This may include a timesheet showing that you were not in the office on the day the harassment was said to have happened or a memo from a meeting showing that you were elsewhere at the time of the alleged harassment. It may also include documents showing that you did not make or engage in the alleged harassing statements or actions, such as a memo written by another person.
- Other types of evidence, such as security tape footage - If your company regularly monitors hallways and other areas of the place of business, recordings of the areas in which the harassment was alleged to have occurred can prove that it didn't. Sometimes, your HR manager will have to request copies of these recordings, but you can provide the locations, dates, and times of the tapes that should be requested to make this task easier.
Witnesses and Alibis
Witnesses include those individuals who your accuser relied upon to support his claim as well as those you might use to support your defense. First, make a list of those that support your accuser's allegations detailing the time and events they witnessed. You will later use this in your interviews of them.
Second, make a list of witnesses you can rely on for your defense. The list of witnesses to question on your behalf should include any alibis. Include the dates and times that they witnessed anything pertinent to the charges as well as the general statements you believe they can make. This will assist you in recalling what you would like them to say on your behalf during any interview.
Step 3: Write Down Your Version of Events
Next, write down what happened. Provide as much detail as possible, including dates, times, individuals and alibis who were present, and anything else related to the alleged harassment. Provide as much information as possible, but do not stray from the main focus of your writing. At the end of your version of events, write a sentence stating that everything you've said is true, date the paper, and sign your name.
Step 4: Speak With Your Alibi
If you have a person serving as your alibi, ask to meet with him or her to discuss the situation. During the meeting, explain the charges you face and give specifics of them. Then, detail the times that your alibi was present so that he or she knows the exact instances with which you would like assistance. Ask your alibi to write down and sign a document detailing the events as he or she witnessed them.
Your alibi might not want to become involved in the situation or meet with you alone. Do not take this personally, but instead request that the information your alibi can provide be requested by your HR representative or that your alibi be interviewed by your HR representative or superiors.
Step 5: Provide Documentation
The next step is to give all of the documentation you have gathered to your HR manager and superiors. This includes all documents you gathered in your defense, such as emails or other records, your statement of events, and the name and any statement from your alibi. Also, share this information with your union representative, if applicable.
When turning in this information, state that you will give all parties 3-4 days to review it and that you are available for any questions. Request that a meeting be scheduled with your superiors, HR representative, and union representative (if any) to review the information you provided at the end of the 3-4 days.
At this point, if your alibi has proven reluctant to become involved, ask that your HR representative call him or her in for an interview. Ask that you be present during this interview, but note that this may not be granted depending on how your HR representative feels it is best to proceed. If you are excluded, ask that all information your alibi provides be recorded so that you may review it in the future.
If you've already spoken with your alibi, inquire as to whether your HR representative would like to include him or her in the meeting.
Step 6: Meet to Review Evidence
Meet with your HR representative, boss, manager, and union representative to discuss and review the information you provided. If your alibi is present, request that he or she is interviewed or that his or her version of events be confirmed.
During this meeting, ask:
- What charges have been dismissed based on the evidence you've provided
- What charges remain to be refuted
- Whether your accuser has been presented with this evidence and what was his or her response
After providing your documentation, alibi, and statement of events, you will likely find that the majority or all of the charges levied against you have been dismissed. If not, ask that all witnesses to the harassment be interviewed in your presence, if possible.
Step 7: Consider Hiring Legal Representation
If you've presented all your evidence, witness statements, and alibi to your superiors and found that none of the charges against you have been dropped, you might consider hiring an attorney. A lawyer can assist you in defending yourself so that your work record does not suffer any negative consequences.
Step 8: Interview Witnesses
During this step, meet with your HR representative, boss, manager, union representative, and the witness to the harassment to discuss what was actually seen or heard. You will likely be allowed to ask the witness questions, which may include:
- What was exactly said?
- What was exactly done?
- When was it clear to the witness that this was harassment, and if so, was this clear at the time of the incident or later after being asked about it by the harassed individual?
The purpose of these interviews is to show that the witness may not have heard or seen what she claimed or that she did not consider it harassment until after the allegedly harassed individual asked her to be a witness. The latter is particularly important because it shows that your actions were not harassment, but only construed as such by the allegedly harassed individual.
Step 9: Meet With Superiors and Accuser
The final step is to hold a meeting in which all major parties to the alleged harassment are present. This includes yourself, your superiors, union representative, HR representative, and the individual levying the harassment claims against you. Depending on company policy, witnesses and alibis might not be included. This is not a problem since these individuals have already been interviewed.
At this meeting, do not be aggressive or angry. Also, do not directly address your accuser. Instead, ask that the accusations against you, at least those that still stand, be repeated. Then, discuss how the evidence that you have provided refutes those charges. Finally, ask what resolution your superiors have decided upon.
At no point should you state that you engaged in harassment or are sorry for those things that you did that were construed as harassment. Doing so can leave you open to further harassment charges, either at work or in court, in the future.
Dealing With Retaliation
Once vindicated of the charges against you, you may face some retaliation either by your accuser or other coworkers. If you feel that you are the target of retaliation, keep a record of all instances and notify your HR representative, superiors, and union representative of the events. At no point should you try to take matters into your own hands or find a solution to the retaliation on your own; the job to discuss and end the retaliation against you is that of your HR representative and superiors.
Battling Harassment Charges
If you're facing harassment charges at work, the eight steps discussed above can help you clear your name. When working to defend yourself, remain calm, do not make any attempt to discuss the charges with your accuser, and rely on hard evidence to prove your innocence.