Google+

BBC Capital

Your employee’s sins, your problem

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

When someone’s accused of harassment, how do you manage the firestorm? (Thinkstock)

When someone’s accused of harassment, how do you manage the firestorm? (Thinkstock)

Q: One of my subordinates is being sued for sexual harassment and my name comes up in the suit because the accuser, who works for him, alleges that I knew about the situation and did nothing. What is my obligation, ethically, to micromanage the people who report to me so that they don't get themselves in trouble? Am I at fault, morally, even though I did not harass anyone or witness any harassment?

A: There’s nothing you can do about the lawsuit at this point. The question of whether or not you could have done something to prevent or stop the harassment, or whether there was even harassment in the first place, is in the court’s hands. What you can do is focus on how you work with your team.

“Since the legal wheels are already in motion, it’s important to focus on what will improve communications and morale at work and keep your team functioning productively,” said Israela Brill-Cass, an attorney and mediator, who is the executive director of the Boston Law Collaborative and an adjunct professor at Emerson College in the US.

She recommends checking in with your team members in person, if possible, weekly. The best way to do this is informally, Brill-Cass said, ideally at your employee’s desk. The idea is simply to find out how things are going, what questions need to be addressed and how you can best support the employee.

“Check-ins allow you to stay in touch with staff, stay on top of potential issues and remain accessible to your team — therefore making it less likely that things will come up that make you feel or feel viewed as being at fault,” Brill-Cass said.

Don’t kid yourself, she warned, that the usual office procedures will promote a free-flow of information between you and your staff: “Regular group meetings, emails or having an ‘open door’ policy have all been shown to be ineffective tools for encouraging staff communication.”

What you shouldn’t do, she said, is “use check-ins as an opportunity to discuss the case or plead your lack of knowledge around the circumstances of the lawsuit.” Harping on the situation will only make you sound guilty (in the moral sense if not in the courtroom sense) and it may complicate the case if your staff gets called as witnesses.

 Instead, pay attention to what your team is saying. Listening — and taking their ideas into consideration — is the best way to avoid interpersonal issues arising between your team members.

“Employees want someone leading them who is accessible, plugged-in and positive,” Brill-Cass said. “These qualities will go much further to stave off potential workplace problems than micromanagement ever will.”

Do you believe superiors should be held liable for their subordinates’ misdeeds? Have you been blamed for someone else’s misconduct? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

Harping on the situation will only make you sound guilty.