From the Hotline: Dealing with Inappropriate Comments from CEO

Question: Today an employee told me how uncomfortable she was with a comment our CEO made about her blouse. What do I do?

Answer: A company has an affirmative duty to conduct a thorough investigation each and every time it is made aware that harassment may be taking place in the organization. Inappropriate sexual comments, discrimination based upon gender and/or sexual orientation, and inappropriate behavior all fall under the definition of illegal sexual harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the state agencies take harassment complaints seriously, so failing to conduct an investigation could leave the company subject to liability for a sexual harassment discrimination claim.

Although not every inappropriate comment will be viewed as harassment, every report of such should be treated with respect and in accordance with company policy. Typically the nature of the complaint will determine how you should begin the investigation. In this case, the employee has reported a comment concerning her blouse.

Consider taking the following steps:

  • Listen to the concern with consideration and advise the employee that the company takes reports of wrongdoing seriously and will investigate thoroughly, and that confidentiality will be observed to the extent practical to protect everyone’s privacy.
  • Ask if there were any other witnesses to the comments and if this was a one-time remark or if it had occurred previously with the employee or others.
  • Determine what the employee wants or expects will be done as a result of bringing this concern to you (either simply wanting the remark(s) to stop or more aggressive action).
  • Tell the employee that you will be investigating this issue and addressing it with the CEO to make him or her aware that his comments caused discomfort so that the company can ensure that this no longer occurs.
  • Let the employee know that retaliation for making a report of misconduct or harassment is forbidden by the company and that she should immediately advise you of any perceived retaliation or of further incidents of misconduct or harassment.

Be sure that during the initial interview with the employee, you obtain:

  • The description of each incident, including date, time, place, and nature of conduct.
  • A description of her responses to the CEO with each incident.
  • The names of any witnesses to the alleged incident.

Although this type of situation can be difficult when the accused party holds a high-level position in the company, the law still holds the company accountable for conducting a prompt and impartial investigation and taking appropriate action if the claim is substantiated.

If the investigation does result in a violation of company policy or harassment, the matter should still be addressed with the CEO and others in management to ensure future issues do not arise.