Q: Since his arrival, our new chief executive's performance has been excellent. But recently he has been behaving inappropriately towards two female members of staff. What should I, as a trustee, do?
A: Until you bring the matter into the light of day, they remain only unsubstantiated allegations. The worst thing you can do is nothing.
The first action to take is to tell the complainants individually that since they have made potentially serious complaints, you must investigate.
Take a full note of the interview and of their allegations. If the complainants withdraw their allegations, note that and tell them you are doing so.
Also have a witness who is uninvolved - another trustee would obviously be best - and ensure that you see the complainants on the same visit, one straight after the other.
You should then show the chief executive your notes and ask them for a reply. It is also worth checking the personnel files. Have either or both the complainants made previous allegations of any nature about anyone?
And, if so, were they substantiated or not. If not, this may throw doubt on the substance of the complaints.
Even if the chief executive denies the claim it is still worth cross examining them. The inappropriate behaviour may have no sinister cause and it may, for example, be that the boss is a "touchy-feely
person by nature who is flabbergasted by the allegations.
If so, tell them to be more careful while respecting that the actions complained of may have had no underlying motive.
It could also be worth asking the chief executive to make an informal apology for any offence caused. It will not put an end to the matter but it could bring the complainants even more on side.
If the matter cannot be resolved, you, with at least one other, should ask the complainants to make their complaint formally. It is then for you and your fellow trustees to decide who to believe. In practice, there may have been misunderstandings all round. However, if the complainants still allege inappropriate conduct and this is denied by your chief executive, you should consult your legal advisers as to the next appropriate steps to be taken.
Above all do not allow allegations and suspicions to fester. Document everything and have witnesses. Also act quickly and decisively, and always ensure that you have a written policy for conduct in the workplace.
Finally, remember that if things get out of hand, awards for sexual harassment can end up being substantial.
Send your questions to: email@example.com.