Sexual harassment is a sensitive topic and the complainant would like to keep it as a secret. While almost everyone agrees that it is right to maintain the confidentiality of the complainant, there may be questions on why the respondent gets the same privilege. Sometimes the behavior that the complainant found harassing may not be intentional and the respondent might be ready to correct his behavior. There is also a chance that the accusation was used as a retaliation or with malicious intent. This can ruin the reputation of the respondent when he is innocent.
The respondent can file a defamation in such scenarios if the organization fails to maintain confidentiality. An organization has the moral obligation to protect the reputation of its employees, be it the complainant or respondent.
In addition to the damage of employees’ reputation, leak of information can compromise the quality of the investigation. It can also get the organization into trouble if the complainant or the respondent decides to pursue the case in the court of law.
Here are a few ways the organization can ensure confidentiality about the case:
- Get every IC member to sign a non-disclosure agreement to declare that no information other than what is required will be shared with anyone inside or outside the organization.
- It is highly impossible for some people in the organization to not know about the incident, like managers and HR. When information must be shared with others, restrict the flow of information on a need-to-know basis.
- Include the clause of confidentiality in the Sexual Harassment policy. Policy should have clear guidelines on how an employee should handle information about incidents from co-workers.
- Some organizations levy heavy fine on people who leak information. Organization can use discretion to make a decision on this.
- Create awareness on the importance of maintaining confidentiality and consequences of information leak. Check out our customizable eLearning course on POSH. Including this in the regular POSH training is an effective method. Training can also inform employees about the degree of confidentiality available to them.
Maintaining confidentiality about the details of the complainant, respondent, witnesses and all other details regarding the complaint is the responsibility of the IC members. However, it is impossible to keep it a complete secret from the entire organization. So, it is advised not to promise that the identity of the complainant and respondent will not be revealed.
When an employee raises a complaint, the concerned person should not promise that the identity of the complainant will not be revealed. Never agree if the employee requests not to investigate the issue either. They should explain that the organization is obligated to investigate according to the law and proceed with the investigation. They should also assure that the organization will protect the employee from any form of retaliation, which is usually the reason employees hesitate to report incidents.
While confidentiality is a mandate, it is also important to understand that there is only a certain degree to which it can be maintained. An organization should take every measure possible to protect information, along with ensuring protection for witnesses and complainant against retaliation. Most importantly, working towards reducing the number of sexual harassment incidents is the best assurance an organization can give its employees.