False harassment complaints, revisited.

Last year I wrote an installment of this blog entitled “False Complaints of Sexual Harassment: A Practical Approach.” Interestingly enough, that is the most read of all of my blog entries and the one read most from Internet searches. While this has been an unexpected result, it is not all that surprising and tends to reflect the fears I frequently hear voiced by clients. Simply put, many HR people and managers are fearful that telling employees about the large monetary settlements will encourage people to file complaints solely for the purpose of financial gain. While I won’t argue the fact that there are unethical, dishonest people out there who might try that, the vast majority of the American workforce does not fit that description.

First, I suppose we have to consider the likelihood of that happening. While this is certainly a possibility, I have to think that expecting that to be the case takes a very cynical view of most employees. Frankly, I think that companies that look at their “most valuable asset” through that lens probably deserve more than their fair share of unethical employees. And yet, false harassment complaints are still the exception rather than the rule. I have seen an article that put a very low percentage on it but since I have not been able to find that article I will content myself to say they don’t happen very often.

If we think about it, filing a false complaint might occur for a variety of reasons, money not being the least of those. Still, every complaint doesn’t result in a lawsuit or even an EEOC complaint. A complaint has to be the result of behavior that is pervasive or severe or both before it rises to the level of being illegal. Keep in mind that lawyers typically don’t take cases they don’t think they can win. Plus, over the last decade, the EEOC dismissed nearly 50% of all sexual harassment complaints and nearly 60% of all other harassment complaints with a finding of No Reasonable Cause. That is not to say that no harassment occurred in those cases (i.e. false allegations,) it more often means that either the offenses were not serious enough to rise to the level of being illegal or there was not enough evidence to support the claim.

Going back to the original question: does training, especially training that increases awareness of the large monetary settlements and damage awards, increase the likelihood of an employee filing a false complaint? Logically, we have to answer yes, but how much does it increase the likelihood of a false complaint? Even if it worked out to something like 5% (which, in my mind, is an astronomical number) we are still faced with the fact that with the high cost of being wrong, it would seem the prudent thing would be to assume the complaint is legitimate until you have exhausted all other possibilities.

In my experience, people don’t typically start to think about the money involved until after someone has started harassing them. Most of the time people file a complaint to get the harassment to stop. With this in mind, looking for the ulterior motive in the complaint should realistically be the last item on the list of possible reasons for the complaint. At the end of the day, if your policy and training encourages people to come forward with complaints, you have the opportunity to deal with issues before they result in an EEOC complaint or law suit, and that is what you want the training to do.

When I start to provide awareness training for new clients, I warn them up front that they may see a temporary increase in the number of complaints they receive. The first thing they suspect after I tell them that is that the training is somehow causing the harassment. While I can understand someone jumping to that conclusion, that is obviously not the case. It more than likely tends to illustrate just how much of a problem they had to start with. One of my clients put it best, I think, when he saw an increase he said “this just shows me how much we were overlooking or tolerating before.”

So, does training increase the likelihood of false harassment complaints? Yes. Increased knowledge always puts ideas in the minds of unscrupulous people. That is the least of your worries though. If you don’t provide effective training for your managers and employees the question is not whether you will be sued but when.

About David Bassham

I have been a teacher in one form or another for the majority of my adult life. Naturally, it would follow that training and adult education
This entry was posted in Anti-harassment, Sexual Harassment, Title VII, Training and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to False harassment complaints, revisited.

  1. Dana says:

    While at the EEOC, the most often result of a SH complaint I heard was, “I just want it to stop.” The second most often result was “I want an apology.” Occasionally, a charging party wanted the person who they alleged harassed them fired. Rarely were people seeking money.

    I disagree that the monetary “awards” are high. In a case filed with the EEOC, there must be evidence to prove the allegation, and only in the most egregious scenario can a person receive up to $300,000 under the federal law (if the employer has more than 501 employees). Most of the awards I have seen over the years for an individual has been in the $1,000 – $10,000 range — hardly enough to live off of for the rest of one’s life. Of course, this is different under CA state law.

    So we really need to get away from the “false accusation” fear and focus on the real problem: employers that do not take this issue seriously by creating a good policy, training all employees, and treating all complaints equally by doing a prompt and thorough investigation followed by appropriate discipline (as warranted by the evidence) most likely will find themselves in worse economic shape.

    The “false accusation” issue is a smokescreen, just as it is with women “crying rape.” (In fact, many people who are sexually harassed describe feelings similar to those described by people who are raped — violated, intimidated, humiliated, not in control, etc.)

  2. Hi David, Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. It’s vexing when employers lead with such mistrust about their employees and such doubts about their abilities to discern right and wrong. My experience with sexual assault awareness training was similar in that universities were loath to educate for fear of false accusations. In truth the reporting rates rose a bit after trainings but that was because we labeled experiences our students had. Occasionally we had false reports but they were so easy to identify that it was easy for me, as an expert on such issues, to discern, debunk and confront these folks. One wanted to be transferred to another university. We facilitated the transfer knowing she was using a false report and even warned the other university. But, we were colleagues and together found a way to help this poor woman rather than condemn her.

    Regarding companies, I use the ‘high road’ coaching approach-acknolwedge their concerns, note the fact that increases don’t really happen and ask them if they have been able to ID false reports of other issues. Once they realize they are good at truth vs. fiction, we can proceed.

    • Kathleen, Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and offer these insightful comments. The ‘high road’ approach is an excellent suggestion and I will incorporate that into my dealings with clients. David

  3. Here’s a post from my blog, The Word on Employment Law, about a case where the jury effectively found that a false sex harassment claim had been made.


    • John, thanks for sharing this example. I certainly agree with your analysis of this case. The same set of events set in a different context could surely be interpreted as sexual harassment. While we are seeing more instances of this kind or complaints, they are still relatively small in number compared to legitimate complaints.

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