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This Is What Happens When You Go To HR With A Sexual Harassment Claim

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How the truth will set you free.

Maybe you need help right now with a colleague who has been inappropriate, or maybe you’re just curious. Either way, it’s good to know from someone who has worked in HR professionally for 20 years what generally happens.

According to a recent survey, 1 in 3 American women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. So, if it’s happened to you, you certainly wouldn’t be alone.

And if you weren’t sure before, the #MeToo phenomenon has brought this epidemic to the forefront, with now 75 percent of Americans agreeing it’s a problem, according to an ABC-Washington Post poll.

What you may not realize is that apart from all the hype in the entertainment industry, women in all walks of life and industries experience this every day – predominantly by male coworkers — and they are not sure where to turn.

Unfortunately, that’s one of the many reasons many women don’t report harassment — but they should.

Workplaces are required to train employees on what harassment is and what to do about it. But despite this, women are leery about reporting sexual harassment claims to HR.

Studies are now saying that an astonishing 71 percent of women have never reported the incidents.

This may be largely due to a fear of retaliation, HR or management distrust, lack of certainty that the incident was serious enough to report, concern that the tables will be turned on them, or even (wow!) because of empathy for the guy doing the harassing.


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If you have any doubts about filing your claim, there are a few things you need to know:

1. Most importantly, you are not alone. Though you might not know it, there is probably an investigation into inappropriate conduct going on right now at your work.

2. Remember that certified HR professionals are bound by a code of ethics, conduct, confidentiality and, of course, the law. They can even lose their credentials for looking the other way or mishandling your case.

HR’s role is to protect the company and you, hold senior management accountable and ensure that claims are dealt with swiftly, objectively, and fairly.  

3. Be assured that HR can only share information about your complaint on a need-to-know basis. Your privacy should be protected as much as possible, and you should be made to feel at ease when you disclose your most vulnerable details.

4. Ignoring harassment usually doesn’t end well, and speaking up about it can help protect you when incidents recur. And while retaliation can happen — such as threats, poor performance reviews or generally making your working life miserable — these occurrences are fairly easy to prove.

5. If you still have reservations, remember that nothing will change if you don’t come forward. The guy who did this to you — who made you feel angry, humiliated, and ashamed — will do this to others, too.

By bringing up his inappropriate (and possibly illegal behavior), your complaint might just be the final straw for your organization and the first step in putting it behind you.

Once you decide to talk to HR, it’s time to make a plan.

Your readiness to meet with HR can dramatically influence the outcome of the investigation. So, if you’ve already read your organization’s policy on harassment, and you’re clear that the behavior meets the definition, here’s what you need to do next.

Take these steps in preparation of bringing your claim forward:

1. Document what happened.  

Write down everything you remember about the situation (paper and pen is best in this case). As difficult as it may be, try to relive the experience, noting anything and everything you recall. You never know what detail will become important later!

Include dates, times, and exact locations — and don’t forget to make a copy of your notes for your own files.

2. Gather evidence.

Put together a file of documentation that can support your claim. This might contain printouts of emails or text messages, or recordings and transcripts of voicemails.

Remember the famous blue dress that sealed President Clinton’s fate? Whatever you’ve got, preserve it.

3. Identify possible witnesses.

Who might have seen or overheard the incident? Note any possible witnesses who can verify any part of your story. Make a list of people you told about the event, and when and where you told them about it.

Now that you have your facts organized, knowing what happens behind-the-scenes can empower you to act.

Don't worry, there are a lot of guidelines in place to ensure your protection and confidentiality during the process.

Here's what happens next, when you take a sexual harassment claim to Human Resources:

1. HR prepares to investigate your claim.

The most senior HR officer will be notified once anyone in HR gets an official complaint – either written or verbally. Then, they select an experienced HR person to investigate the situation or get a third-party involved. In my experience, a complaint is taken so seriously that all non-urgent work is dropped to focus on resolving it.  

The investigative lead will create a set of questions to guide the interviews with the parties. If there is any concern for your security, HR will also create a safety plan for you, which could include a temporary leave of absence. Your well-being is the main concern.

2. HR starts the investigation by talking to you first.

HR will first want to meet with you (“the complainant”), in a private location. You’ll be asked a number of questions and HR will listen to your account of what happened. Try to relax and be as candid and accurate as you can be. It’s ok to be nervous and refer to your notes.  

To make sure they have the details of your claim, HR will take a careful and thorough record of your meeting. You may be asked to review their notes for accuracy. You’ll have a chance to correct any information or add any additional information not already discussed.

HR will let you know what will happen next and explain both your obligations and those of the person you are accusing of harassment (“the alleged harasser”).


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One thing to note: Though HR should be approachable, it’s not their role to be your friend. Harassment is a serious issue and HR’s job is to ferret out as much of the facts as possible. They also need to protect the other person from malicious claims, though these are very rare. Your job is to tell the truth.

Strict confidentiality is a must, too.  You will be told not to discuss the matter with anyone (apart from your family or a lawyer). You might feel like you’re walking on eggshells with this policy, but be warned: If you tell anyone at work, you could be fired for cause.  

You’ll also be instructed not to have any contact with the guy or any witnesses. If anyone speaks to you about the situation, you need to inform HR. This is particularly true if the guy tries to communicate with you. He’ll face serious consequences for breaching this policy, not to mention for any attempt to intimidate or retaliate against you.

Protecting the integrity of the investigation, and your safety is paramount!

3. HR then conducts other interviews and begins fact-finding.

Next, HR will call a meeting with the guy. And as much as you might want to keep your name out of it, there cannot be an anonymous complaint. He needs to know; it’s the only fair thing here.  

HR will review the same policy items with your coworker as they did with you: the basics of the harassment policy, duty to tell the truth, confidentiality and non-contact/non-retaliation obligations. He will be asked pointed questions to uncover his side of the story.  

Circumstances vary, but often the parties will be separated. Generally, the guy is the one to get temporarily transferred, or he will be asked to go on a leave of absence until the whole situation is over.

After meeting with your colleague, HR will interview all potential witnesses and take their statements, too. If HR needs to clarify anything further, they will call you back for a meeting or meet with any of the others.

Keep in mind that HR may also need to secure evidence, which might mean locking down computers and examining the physical workspace.

4. A decision is made.

Apart from listening to your heartbreaking account, the most difficult part of the process is the decision stage. This involves bringing together the evidence gathered and arriving at a conclusion that can have far-reaching effects.

And unlike a legal case, the outcome is not based on “beyond a reasonable doubt” standards. It’s based on the balance of probabilities; what is most likely to have occurred.

HR will write up a report with recommendations, consult with outside lawyers, and then review the final decision with the most senior executive.

The waiting game can be painful, and you’re probably wondering how long this process will take.

Every situation is unique. Your investigation could last anywhere from a few weeks to a month, though some can take up to 90 days. Stay in close contact with HR, and if you have any concerns about the timelines be sure to raise them.  

5. Your claim gets resolved.

During this final phase, HR will inform your coworker about the conclusion of the investigation and the resulting actions. This could include anything from an apology to a transfer or to dismissal. Some organizations have a zero-tolerance policy; however, in most cases, the punishment fits the offense.

HR will notify you in person of the outcome, and any corrective action the company will be taking, usually at a high level. You will still have the same obligations of confidentiality, and so on, so be mindful of that.

Finally, you can expect that HR will follow up with you every so often to ensure that you feel safe and you haven’t experienced any more problems or retaliation.

If you are unsatisfied with the process or the result, it doesn’t mean you weren’t harassed. It might mean that the case needs another look. You have rights, so exercise them by regrouping with HR, the CEO, board of directors, a lawyer or your government’s human rights agency.

Self-care is important during this time, too. Experiencing harassment can be frustrating all the way to traumatizing. Help is within reach, so speak to a mental health professional, if you need to do so.

Above all, realize that harassment is against the law. It’s plain and simple.

You have the right to be treated with respect at work — not bullied, overpowered or harassed — and to stand up for yourself when you’re not.  

While unimaginable things happen to women every day in the workplace, there are decent, stand-up companies and HR professionals doing their best to create cultures that respect their employees and create a safe place for them to flourish.  

Going to HR with your harassment claim can seem like a big deal. But having an idea of what happens during the process can give you the confidence and ability to take that critical first step. It’s only when women bravely come forward and report claims that real change can happen.


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Lisa Petsinis is a Career and Life Coach with extensive experience in employee relations. You can contact her on her website for a complimentary coaching call and put your workplace issues behind you starting today.

Please note: The information provided, while authoritative, is intended for guidance and is not guaranteed for accuracy. Every workplace’s policy will be different, and legislation around harassment can vary by region. This content is read by a worldwide audience.

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