An employee recently came forward with an accusation that two other employees were selling and buying drugs in the company parking lot. My boss says we can only investigate if the complaining employee has proof of the problem. This is his policy for all employee complaints, even harassment. He says that if the complaining employee doesn't provide proof, we can be accused of unfair targeting. Is this how a Human Resources investigation should be conducted?
Burdened By Proof
Dear Burdened By Proof,
Normally, I'd applaud a boss that doesn't want to get involved in office gossip. Whisper campaigns create a toxic work culture that can lead to lower moral and higher turnover. But there is an HR exception when failure to address the complaint puts the entire company at risk.
Let me first ask a question: What counts as proof?
Eyewitness Testimony Is Proof
If someone comes to you and says they have observed questionable behavior, that counts as proof and you should investigate the situation. Your employees aren't detectives, and should not be expected to record what they see. What's more, your company can get into legal trouble in some states if an employee records someone without their knowledge or consent. You don't want to wait until someone has photographic evidence of a drug deal going down in the parking lot, or a recording of someone sexually harassing someone else to take action. Using hard proof as a standard for investigating means a lot of people won't report problems because they lack proof—and a toxic culture can fester as a result.
Don't Accept Everything at Face Value
It's important to get your facts straight before taking any action. If someone comes to you and says, "Jane is sexually harassing people," you need to dig deeper. Ask the employee how they know this—the answer matters. For instance, if the employee says, "Steve said, that Kevin said, that Harriet said, that Holly said," that means something much different than "Jane sent me a naked photo on Whatsapp." Use your judgement to understand the gravity of the situation, and take appropriate action.
First and Foremost, Follow the Law
Throughout your investigation, make sure that all parties are being treated fairly. The last thing you want is to accidentally discriminate against an employee. If the eyewitness to the parking lot drug deal saw Person A hand Person B an unidentifiable object, don't run out and order a drug test right away. Unless you order a drug test for every employee who hands another employee some sort of object, you're setting yourself up for discrimination charges. This is what your boss is concerned about. What you can do, however, is conduct a quick investigation. Start by gathering the hard facts and make a judgement call based on what you find. Ask your employment attorney if you are concerned or unsure about how to proceed.
Whatever You Do, Don't Ignore the Complaint
Investigating can involve a lot of judgment calls . It's important to remember that you may have to defend your actions in court. But whatever you do, don't ignore the complaint. After all, if you choose not to act, you'll have to explain why.
A court may not look too fondly on your case if they find out that you disregarded an employee's complaint. Make sure you do your research and document what you've done. That's a fundamental responsibility of any Human Resources Department.
Suzanne Lucas, Evil HR Lady
Photo: Creative Commons