Lately, there has been a lot of media attention about sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost daily, there seems to be another news story about a high-profile executive, politician, or celebrity who has abused his position of authority to sexually harass or sexually assault one or more victims.[1] While recent reports might make it seem that sexual harassment is more prevalent these days, it is regrettably a longstanding problem that society must address.

Many victims do not report these types of offences for various reasons. Some fear that they will not be believed and all too often the victims are blamed for having invited the unwanted sexual attention. Some believe (and unfortunately in some cases, rightly so) that their disclosure will do little to change their situation. Compared to their abusers, victims often feel trapped or powerless and have fewer resources to support their claims. Others are reluctant to get involved in lengthy and adversarial court proceedings. Consequently, perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions and the cycle of abuse persists.

On the other hand, some allegations of sexual harassment are unfounded. False accusations can be made for many reasons, including revenge (e.g., to get back at the boss for a real or perceived slight), misinterpretation (e.g., the misattribution of sexual motivation to benign behaviour), or perpetrator substitution (e.g., naming someone other than the actual perpetrator), and so on.

Needless to say, investigating allegations of sexual harassment can be challenging. As with other offences involving sexual misbehaviour, sexual harassment usually occurs in private, isolated settings where the only people present are the perpetrator and the victim. It usually comes down to a case of he said-she said, with little or no corroborating physical evidence or witnesses. As such, the fair and just resolution of these cases depends heavily on the skills of the investigators.

From HR professionals, to law enforcement personnel, legal counsel, and the judiciary, investigators need to have sufficient knowledge and skills to conduct fair and balanced investigations in sexual harassment cases. At a minimum, they should have an understanding of the dynamics of sexual harassment in order to manage their own personal biases. They should also know how to gather memory-based evidence (without contaminating it) since this is the type of evidence on which most she said-he said cases rest. Furthermore, they should know how to weigh the reliability of the evidence collected, both from the alleged victim and from the alleged abuser. In future blogs, we will talk more about the types of knowledge and skills investigators need to have.

[1] Although sexual harassment can occur between individuals of the same sex, the use of pronouns in the article reflects male supervisors or co-workers harassing female subordinates or co-workers, given its historical prevalence.