What You Need to Do If You Are Falsely Accused of Sexual Harassment

Sometimes a Sexual Harassment Claim Is Just a Different Perspective

Image by Elise DeGarmo © The Balance 2019

Sexual harassment can cause a real problem at work. Sexual harassment comes not only in the form of quid pro quo (If you sleep with me, you'll get the promotion), but in the form of inappropriate jokes, pornography on office computers, and touching someone who doesn't want to be touched, in a sexual or suggestive way.

When an employee reports a claim of sexual harassment, the company is obligated to investigate. Normally that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the Human Resources department, but the investigation can be handled by an outside person, frequently an attorney, if the company doesn't have a dedicated HR department or person.

Some companies will choose to bring in a consultant or an attorney, in any case, to investigate such a claim because of concerns about impartiality. This is also fairly standard if the accused is a senior manager because of the difficulty internal managers will have in doing a solid investigation.

Depending on the seriousness of the accusation, a company may suspend the accused person from work until the investigation is complete.

All of these actions are normal and how an investigation should proceed. The best course of action if you're guilty of sexually harassing a coworker is to confess, apologize, promise never to do it again, and hope you don't get fired.

But, what if you're not guilty? False accusations do happen and it could be two completely different perspectives about what actually did happen. If you are wrongly accused, here is what you need to do.

Cooperate With the Investigation

Because you're innocent, instinctively your first reaction may be to push back and stonewall the investigation. It may be that the person who accused you is a competitive person determined to destroy your career because they're vying for your job. They may also be seeking publicity or notoriety. While these issues are possible, you should still cooperate with the investigation 

You need to cooperate because they're going to investigate with you or without you. You want your side of the story on the record and you want to clear your name.

You also want to provide your list of witnesses, especially if your accuser may be scheming against you, you don't want the witness list to consist of your enemies. You need the witness list to contain the names of friends and colleagues who can back up your side of the story.

Confess What You Did Do Wrong

Some sexual harassment claims come after a ​breakup of what was a consensual sexual relationship. If your company has a policy against bosses dating reporting staff or coworkers dating and you did have a sexual relationship with your accuser, don't lie about it. Eventually, management will find out so just confess that you dated and explain for how long. 

Will they still fire you for breaking the rules? Maybe, but you should have been aware of that when you started the relationship. Additionally, you want to get your name cleared—it's far better to be fired for breaking the rules than for committing sexual harassment.

If a coworker walked past your cubicle and saw naked women on your computer screen, it's likely the IT department already knows about it so lying won't help your case

In fact, they probably already had IT look into this before they spoke with you. The key here is to confess what you did wrong. “Yes, I viewed pornography on my company laptop, but I only did it at home. If you look at the timestamps, you'll see that what Jane is complaining about couldn't have happened at work.”

Apologize, Even If You Are Innocent

Your joke wasn't inappropriate; it's just that a coworker who is incredibly thin-skinned thought it was. If this is the case apologize anyway. You weren't looking somewhere other than into a colleague's eyes. Apologize anyway. Why? Because sexual harassment law dictates this.

It doesn't say, you can't tell dirty jokes, pinch someone's behind, or have sex with your assistant. What it does say is, you can't do any of these things if they are unwanted and the person is offended, and a reasonable person would be offended. For the behavior to be considered sexual harassment, the behavior must exhibit all three of these conditions.

The problem is, you don't always know what is unwanted until you carry out the behavior. So, apologize and make a mental note that this person is more sensitive than you previously thought. Let that guide your future interactions.

Hire an Attorney

This is not always necessary. Most of the time, the truth will come out rather rapidly, and the investigation will clear up the charges. However this doesn't always happen, and if the accusations are serious, you could lose your job and your reputation over this accusation.

When the HR department investigates the claim, they aren't required to do so according to criminal court rules. There isn't an impartial jury or a judge that rules on evidence as admissible or inadmissible. They have a legal obligation to conduct a fair investigation but they aren't required to conduct a perfect one.

If the accusation is serious enough that you could lose your job over it, you may wish to hire an attorney. If you do, it's critical that the attorney is one who focuses on employment law, particularly employee-side employment law. This isn't something that just any lawyer can do.

This option costs money, of course, and you'll have to pay out of your own pocket. Regardless, the cost should be less than the cost of losing your job. Your attorney will know the specific laws in your state or country. They will guide you through the process.

What Happens When the Investigation Is Over?

If the investigation finds you responsible, you'll receive some sort of punishment. The punishment can range from a stern, “Do not do this again,” to the termination of your employment. If you believe the termination is unfair and unfounded, you'll want your attorney to negotiate an exit from the company.

It's possible if you are found guilty of sexual harassment that you can still get a severance package and make an agreement that they will provide you with a neutral reference.

If the investigation finds that you are not at fault, the accuser could get anything from a “we're sorry about the misunderstanding, but what you experienced was not sexual harassment,” to a stern “do not do this again.” If egregious, the accuser could even find their employment terminated. Yes, companies can fire you for making false claims.

It's possible if you are found guilty of sexual harassment that you can still get a severance package and make an agreement that they will provide you with a neutral reference.

If both of you remain at the company, you may wish not to work near this person. You can certainly ​ask for a transfer, but your managers may tell you to act like an adult and deal with this situation.

The Bottom Line

If you think this proximity is too difficult for you to handle, by all means, start looking for a new job and leave your employment. The last thing you want is for this sexual harassment charge to haunt you for the rest of your life. Moving on seems unfair, especially if you are an innocent party, but sometimes it's the best solution to a bad situation.