Employers are required to prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace. When an employee makes a complaint of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or a violation of any law, an employer has a legal obligation to promptly investigate the complaint. The obligation may arise even if the employee is mistaken about whether a violation of law occurred. Conducting an investigation that complies with the law, while also protecting the company and complainant, can be challenging.
The failure to conduct a comprehensive investigation can result in liability against an employer. For example, courts have held that federal law requires employers to investigate all complaints of discrimination and that the failure to do so could demonstrate pretext which may be enough to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Alternatively, in defending against claims of sexual harassment, employers may be able to limit liability and/or damages by asserting and then proving the affirmative defense that the employer took reasonable steps to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior. See Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998) and Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998).