The importance of getting to the bottom of accusations quickly

24Sep13

When you have required disciplinary action and vague accusations at the same time, what do you do?

Insist on some kind of follow up. HR needs to make those accusations more concrete. In this case, stronger action may have prevented this case from being litigated all the way to a federal appeals court.

A hospital supervisor had apparently grown suspicious his employer was listening electronically to conversations. Coincidentally, he had to issue a final warning to a direct report for violating company policies on taping conversations with patients (in violation of HIPAA). During this meeting, the supervisor asked the woman to raise her shirt to indicate she wasn’t “wearing a wire.” After considerable pressure, she did so. She cried, and the supervisor closed the distance between them and asked for a kiss.

She was suspended and during that conversation with HR, she reported that her supervisor had done something “horrific.” She refused to elaborate when HR asked. It took her a month to offer the details to HR. HR asked the supervisor for his side of the story. He denied the allegations, then left work and committed suicide.

The direct report, meanwhile, kept secretly recording conversations with her co-workers, patients and HR. She was terminated for it. She sued under hostile workplace.

The district court granted summary judgment and the appeals court affirmed. The employer:

*established, disseminated and enforced anti-harassment policies, and

*began an intensive investigation.

Meanwhile:

* the employee didn’t take advantage of the investigative opportunities by refusing to disclose details of her complaint, and

* she was fired for a legitimate reason, violation of HIPAA.

Could HR have done more to get an upset employee to disclose the nature of the violations, and thus have headed off a long legal fight?

Possibly. When you face an employee who can’t seem to state the allegations, offer several options for the person to talk to. Sometimes they might be willing to initially disclose to someone who is particularly sensitive.

Cite: Crocket v. Mission Hospital, Inc., No. 12-1910, 4th Cir.

Webinar info: Conducting workplace investigations.

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