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Workplace Investigations

The workplace is, under normal circumstances, supposed to be rather boring, routine place where professional behavior is the standard operating procedure. However, due to the ever-present human nature factor, sometimes the workplace can turn into a place of horrific scandal that creates serious repercussions for those involved and results in penalties or terminations.

Perhaps an employee gets caught running a phone or email phishing scam out of the office, or an employee takes advantage of inside stock information to make big money. Sometimes the scandal can be much more serious, like a sexual assault in the workplace between co-workers.

Whatever the catalyst, sometimes the only way to hash out the details of what happened in a particular instance and to properly assign blame and assess penalties is to open a workplace investigation. Workplace investigations can be conducted internally or through a contracted investigator, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.

Contracting out for an investigator almost certainly ensures that the investigation will be fair, neutral and deliver an honest verdict, however it may be more costly. An investigator inside the company, though, will almost certainly be more vulnerable to personal biases or influence from other members of the workplace.

Above all, a workplace investigation must be handled fairly, as IBM learned in 2014 when a former vice president won a $4.1 million suit for wrongful termination. Initially, the termination was handled internally, with a human resources investigator concluding that the vice president was fired for legitimate reasons, instead of on the basis of his age.

A federal jury and judge disagreed, however, when it was revealed in court that the investigator’s report failed to include the vice president’s positive performance reviews. The judge concluded the investigator conducted a one-sided investigation “more to exonerate IBM than to determine if [the vice president] was treated fairly.” Because of these errors in investigating, the vice president wound up victorious in his suit.

Every investigation should be properly planned, conducted objectively, rely on physical evidence and reliable witnesses to assess the truth in the matter and should involve no shady tactics such as forced confessions or threats of dismissal. Each investigation should end with a comprehensive report that includes the incident being investigated, key individuals involved, relevant employer policies, witness statements, issues that were unable to be resolved, any conclusions drawn and any actions taken by the employer.

Another key element in conducting a workplace investigation is to maintain confidentiality. If somebody is involved in the investigation, they shouldn’t be publically outed or speak about the investigation outside of their conversations with the investigator. However, employees should also be aware that their statements in an investigation are by no means guaranteed to remain confidential, as they may be called upon as a witness in a trial or a subsequent hearing.

The burden is on the employer to investigate properly

There are many ways that an investigation can go wrong, such as the aforementioned case of IBM leaving out critical information. Similarly, if any workplace investigation acquires information through illegitimate or illicit means, as was the case when AutoZone illegally detained an employee who they suspected had stolen parts, then the investigation will likely be doomed to fail when the person who was wronged files a lawsuit.

Employees should always be aware that, simply because an investigation turned up a certain result, doesn’t mean that the truth was found. If something seems off, or if you were victimized by improper investigation tactics by an internal investigator, you have a great case to file a claim against your employer for conducting an improper workplace investigation.

As some of the biggest companies in the world have learned the hard way, you can still lose in an objective courtroom even if you rigged the rules of the game within your own walls. The point of any investigation, in the workplace or elsewhere in the world, should be to ascertain the truth and assign a proper course of action or punitive measures after the truth is found.

If you or somebody you love was the victim of an illegitimate or faulty workplace investigation that resulted in a termination, loss of wages, personal humiliation or other financial or emotional damage, call a legal professional from Altman & Altman LLP today. We offer free consultations to review your case, and can provide the best, most knowledgeable course of action moving forward.

With over 40 years of experience, we have the expertise to handle your case with the utmost attention to detail and professionalism. Call us today at 617.492.3000 or toll-free at 800.481.6199. We are available 24/7.

Boston Employment Lawyer Blog - Workplace Investigations
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