Skip to main content

Complaint Resolution Procedures

The Office of Equity investigates reports in which a complainant (the person submitting the complaint) alleges that a staff or faculty member, or third party, violated the University’s Policy on Discrimination and Harassment or Policy on Sexual Misconduct. Complaints against students should be directed to the Office of Student Conduct.

Complaint resolution guidelines

I. Initial inquiry

When the Office of Equity receives a report of discrimination and/or harassment, staff or their designee will begin an initial inquiry as soon as practicable, generally within one week. This will most frequently begin with an attempt to gain additional information from the complainant, preferably through an in-person meeting. The scope and timing of further action will depend upon a number of factors, including but not limited to, whether the identity of the complainant and/or respondent (the person complained about) is known; whether the complainant is willing to participate in an investigation; whether the complainant requests anonymity or confidentiality; whether the complainant or respondent is affiliated with the University, and; whether the University has an obligation to proceed with an investigation based on the nature of the conduct alleged, regardless of the complainant’s wishes.

Following an Initial Inquiry, possible next steps include:

  • Formal Investigation: Office of Equity may determine the complainant provided sufficient information to suggest a policy violation may have occurred and that the respondent may be responsible. In these cases, the complaint will proceed to full investigation. Prior to the conclusion of an investigation, the complainant may request to withdraw the complaint by contacting the Office of Equity in writing. As noted above, although Office of Equity weighs the wishes of the complainant heavily when deciding whether to pursue a full investigation, in some cases the University may have an obligation to proceed with a full investigation based on the nature of the allegations.
  • Informal Action: Informal action involves action taken by the University in response to a situation or report of discrimination/harassment when the complainant does not desire a formal investigation or when there is not enough information to proceed with a full investigation.  Examples of informal actions include, but are not limited to, a warning to cease current behaviors, no-contact directives and/or an educational conversation with the respondent or others. Informal action does not result in findings related to responsibility or in sanctions.
  • Close the Case: In order for a case to be referred for a full investigation, there must be sufficient information to believe a policy violation may have occurred and the respondent may be responsible. Office of Equity may dismiss a case when insufficient information exists to move forward or when the alleged misconduct—even if substantiated— would not be a violation of policy. Office of Equity may, in its discretion, reopen a case in the future if additional information becomes available or a complainant who was unwilling to participate in an investigation changes their mind. 

II. Formal investigation

Investigation process

When a complaint proceeds to full investigation, the matter will be investigated in a prompt, thorough and impartial manner. Investigation will commence as soon as practicable following the initial inquiry process detailed above. Investigations will be conducted as expeditiously as possible and are usually completed within a reasonable period, typically 60-90 days, though this may vary based on the availability of parties and witnesses, breaks in the academic calendar, the scope of the investigation or unforeseen or exigent circumstances. In instances when an investigation will exceed 90 days, the investigator will notify both the complainant and respondent. Depending upon the circumstances, the investigator will likely be from Office of Equity or the University Sexual Harassment Prevention Office, or a collaboration between the two offices.

During an investigation, complainants will have the opportunity to describe their allegations and present supporting witnesses or other evidence. The respondent will have the opportunity to receive notice of each allegation, respond to each allegation and present their evidence supporting their position and propose relevant witnesses. The investigator will review evidence presented and will, as determined appropriate by the investigator, meet with additional witnesses identified by the complainant, the respondent or third parties. In some instances, the investigator may identify and communicate with witnesses who were not identified by the complainant, respondent or third parties. Investigation meetings are not tape recorded by the University and may not be recorded by any participant. Parties and witnesses may take notes during investigation meetings.

Generally, the investigator will meet with each party and each witness separately. In some cases, the investigator may interview the parties and/or witnesses more than once. The parties may submit additional materials or information to the investigator following their interview(s). In all cases, both the complainant and respondent will have equal opportunities to share information and have their information considered. 

There is no time limit for when a complainant must report an incident of discrimination or harassment; however, reports should be made as soon as possible after the incident, preferably within one year, because the passing of time makes a review of the evidence more difficult and the memories of involved parties may become less reliable.

All parties involved in the investigation are expected to cooperate and provide truthful information throughout the investigation process.

Support person

Complainants and respondents may be accompanied by one advisor throughout the investigation and any hearing process, provided that the involvement of the advisor does not result in an undue delay of the process. It is the responsibility of each party to coordinate scheduling with their advisor for any meetings. An advisor is a support person who is present to provide support to a complainant or respondent throughout an investigation and/or hearing. An advisor may not speak, write or otherwise communicate with an investigator or with the individual responsible for deciding an investigation appeal on behalf of the complainant or respondent. Advisors may not engage in behavior or advocacy that harasses, abuses, or intimidates either party, a witness or individuals involved in resolving the complaint. Advisors who do not abide by these guidelines may be excluded from the process.

Advisors cannot be a witness or party in the matter or a related matter, a family member of the complainant or respondent or an attorney.

A union representative may serve as an advisor, where applicable.

Privacy and sharing of information

The purpose of the Northwestern Policy on Discrimination and Harassment is to provide the University community with a positive working and educational environment that is free of discrimination and harassment. Complaints of discrimination or harassment will be investigated in a manner that is consistent with this goal.

Northwestern cannot promise complete confidentiality or privacy in its handling of discrimination and harassment complaints. Northwestern makes every reasonable effort to handle inquiries, complaints and related proceedings in a manner that protects the privacy of all parties. Each situation is reviewed as discreetly as possible, with information shared only with those who need to know about it in order to investigate and resolve the matter.

All participants in an investigation of discrimination or harassment will be informed that confidentiality helps enhance the integrity of the investigation, protect the privacy interests of the parties and protect the participants from statements that might be interpreted to be retaliatory or defamatory. For these reasons, the complainant and respondent will be asked at the beginning of an investigation to keep the information related to the investigation private, to the extent consistent with applicable law. Witnesses and advisors will also be asked to maintain complete confidentiality to the investigation to the extent consistent with applicable law.

In certain circumstances, and upon explicit request, the University may be able to address discrimination or harassment concerns and stop problematic behavior without revealing to the alleged respondent the identity of the person who complained and/or the individuals involved in the investigation. However, this is not possible in the majority of matters, as situations typically require the disclosure of the complainant’s identity in order to fully investigate the matter and/or to enable the respondent the ability to fully respond to the allegations against them. When complainants report allegations of discrimination or harassment to Northwestern and do not consent to the disclosure of their names and/or do not disclose the identity of the alleged respondents or identifiable information about the alleged respondents, Northwestern’s ability to respond to the complaints may be limited.

Throughout its proceedings, Northwestern will be sensitive to the wishes of the complainant. Nevertheless, the University has a compelling interest to address allegations of discrimination or harassment brought to its attention. Northwestern reserves the right to take appropriate action in such circumstances, even in cases when the complainant is reluctant to proceed with an investigation or requests anonymity.


At the conclusion of an investigation, the investigator will determine whether the preponderance of the evidence indicates that the respondent violated the Policy on Discrimination and Harassment. The investigator(s) will provide their conclusions to the appropriate University office(s). The complainant and the respondent will be notified, in writing, of the outcome of the investigation and the rationale of the outcome decision, upon its conclusion.

When a violation of the Policy on Discrimination and Harassment is found, the University’s response is based on several factors, including the severity of the conduct, and aims to prevent problems from recurring. In addition, the University may recommend steps to address the effects of the conduct on the complainant and others. Violators of the policy will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment, in accordance with relevant University policies and/or procedures and other requirements set forth in the Staff or Faculty Handbook.

  • For staff respondents, in the event a policy violation is found, Office of Equity will provide findings to the Office of Human Resources and the respondent's manager(s), who are responsible for deciding what sanctions or corrective actions should be imposed on the respondent, in accordance with the procedures set forth in the Staff Handbook.
  • For faculty respondents, in the event a policy violation is found, Office of Equity will provide findings to the faculty member's Dean and the Associate Provost  for Faculty. Any sanctions or corrective actions imposed will be determined in accordance with the procedures set forth in the Faculty Handbook.
  • For third party respondents, findings of a violation may be provided to the third party’s employer (when applicable) and the appropriate University office for further action consistent with the findings.


The complainant or respondent may request a reconsideration of the case in instances where they are dissatisfied with the outcome. The appeal must be made within five (5) calendar days of the date of the written notification of the findings, or, if sanctions are imposed, the determination of sanctions. An appeal must be in writing and specify the basis for the appeal. The original finding is presumed to be reasonable and appropriate based on a preponderance of the evidence. The only grounds for appeal are as follows:

  • New information discovered after the investigation that could not have reasonably been available at the time of the investigation and is of a nature that could materially change the outcome;
  • Procedural errors within the investigation or resolution process that may have substantially affected the fairness of the process;
  • An outcome (findings or sanctions) that was manifestly contrary to the weight of the information presented (i.e., obviously unreasonable and unsupported  by the great weight of information).

The decision on an appeal will be issued as expeditiously as possible, usually within 45 days, though this may vary based on the scope of the appeal or unforeseen circumstances. The reviewer may review the full case, beyond the aspects of the case outlined in the request for appeal. If the reviewer does not find that any of the three grounds for appeal are present in the case, the outcome will be upheld. If the reviewer finds that any of the grounds for appeal are present in the case, they may amend the outcome, may issue a new outcome or may refer the matter back to the investigator for further consideration. A final outcome on an appeal is not subject to further appeal.

In the event sanctions are imposed, it shall be in the discretion of the sanctioning office whether the sanctions shall be implemented or stayed pending resolution of an appeal. Appeals will be handled by the following reviewers, who may delegate the review of an appeal to a designee, and will delegate review in any case in which they cannot serve as an impartial reviewer.

  • An appeal of a complaint against a staff member or third party should be addressed to:
    Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer
    720 University Place
    Evanston, IL  60208
    Phone: (847) 491-7505
    Fax: (847) 467-2688
  • An appeal of a complaint against a faculty member should be addressed to:
    Associate Provost for Faculty
    633 Clark Street
    Rebecca Crown Center
    Evanston, IL  60208
    Phone: (847) 491-5117
    Fax: (847) 467-1630

III. Retaliation

Northwestern strictly prohibits retaliation against anyone for making a complaint of discrimination and/or harassment for participating in an investigation of discrimination and/or harassment. Retaliation is any attempt to seek retribution against an individual or group of individuals who engaged in protected activities. Action in response to protected activities is retaliatory if (i) it has a materially adverse effect on the working, academic, or other University-controlled environment of an individual; and (ii) it would not have occurred in the absence of the protected activities.  For more information, please review the University’s Policy on Non-Retaliation.

Anyone experiencing any conduct that they believe to be retaliatory should report it to Office of Equity immediately.

IV. Conflicts of interest

Any participant in an investigation who has a complaint regarding the conduct of the investigator or who believes the investigator has a conflict of interest should contact one of the individuals listed under the Appeals section, above. If a participant has a concern regarding an individual responsible for hearing an appeal, the participant should contact the Associate Vice President for Equity.

These guidelines supersede previously published procedures and guidelines for complaint resolution.