We’ve got workplace investigations on our minds this week. Since the holidays can bring inappropriate employee behavior as well as good cheer and mistletoe, we offer a caution: In the rush to take prompt remedial action in response to a complaint of harassment, don’t forget to conduct an adequate investigation. As important as it is to solve workplace problems, you need to get to the bottom of things, particularly when there are credibility issues. That’s not just Human Resources 101; it’s advice from an appellate court.
The case that brings this to mind is Mendoza v. Western Medical Center of Santa Ana, decided in California earlier this year. It’s about two employees behaving badly and the employer not wanting to choose sides. A new male supervisor and a long-term male employee traded allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct. The employer’s investigation consisted of a joint interview with the two employees. The employer apparently wanted the matter to be resolved quickly, and fired both individuals for inappropriate conduct. The long-term employee sued. An appellate opinion after trial included the following footnote:
“[D]efense counsel asked (perhaps rhetorically) just what employers were expected to do when faced with a scenario in which two employees provide conflicting accounts of inappropriate conduct. Our answer is simple: employers should conduct a thorough investigation and make a good faith decision based on the results of the investigation. … Hopefully this opinion will disabuse employers of the notion that liability (or a jury trial) can be avoided by simply firing every employee involved in the dispute.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Posted by: Sarah Mott