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Don't Walk Away From Personnel Investigations

April 1, 2004
by root
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Getting to the bottom of the infraction should be an inquiry, not an inquisition by Jaime Todd, MBA
BY JAIME TODD, MBA

Don't walk away from personnel investigations

Ignoring allegations of misconduct is simply not an option Eventually, it happens at every facility-employees accuse each other of misconduct. The nature of the accusations may include theft, assault, sexual and/or other types of harassment, or patient abuse. Often, the accuser will make an allegation and then request the issue not be pursued, at which time ill-informed managers eagerly comply. However, once an accusation is made, the organization has an obligation to investigate the allegation.

When administrators or supervisors fail to properly respond to allegations, liability exposure to future claims by the accused, the accuser, or a third party escalates dramatically. The best strategy for protecting a facility from litigation is to teach employees the importance of reporting misconduct, as well as to ensure that administrators and supervisors are taught proper protocol for personnel investigations.

Take a Stand on All Allegations
Facility management must take every accusation seriously. There are two main reasons that managers ignore allegations or complaints: (1) Ineffective, lazy managers don't want to be bothered by the intensive process of an investigation, or (2) the managers are ill-informed about the legal consequences of "blowing off" allegations. Either way, the organization usually pays for these mistakes in court.

To reduce liability exposure, all investigations should be approached cautiously and without haste. Serious allegations such as assault, sexual harassment, or abuse require that the accused be suspended pending administrative investigation. It's prudent to involve the human resources director or legal counsel when details of an investigation might need to be protected by the attorney-client privilege. Another benefit of involving human resources or legal counsel is to avoid procedural mistakes made by ineffective management.

Sidestep Investigation Mistakes
Interviewer bias destroys the validity of investigations. Interviews must be objective and should be conducted by a neutral person. Once interpersonal relationships enter the investigation, the entire process becomes degraded in the eyes of a judge or jury.

The most common interviewer bias is to control or dilute the information-gathering process. For example, an interviewer might alter the outcome of an investigation by commenting at the start of the interview that the interviewee will be terminated for discussing the interview with anyone, which shows a blatant disregard for investigative principles. Effective interviewers know that the goal of any interview is to put the interviewee sufficiently at ease to encourage honest, candid, and accurate responses. Starting the interview by putting fear in the interviewee is manipulative and is intended to change the context of the employee's responses-and unfortunately for the facility's image, the technique works!

Watch Your Step During Interviews
A prompt response to accusations is essential to reinforce the importance of company policies and procedures. Whether involving the accused, the accuser, or witnesses, all interviews must be held privately to prevent potential embarrassment or humiliation. The interviewer should avoid emotional discussions and never become argumentative, angry, or interrogative; he or she should simply focus on exploring the act in question and its potential consequences.

Always let the accused tell his/her side of the story. Keep an open mind and don't pass judgment until all information has been collected and thoroughly analyzed. Throughout the information gathering, seek to identify mitigating circumstances that might have influenced the action, such as personal problems, other employee involvement, or factors outside the employee's control.

Employees may refuse to participate in the investigation and demand to leave the interview. It is important never to tell employees they can't leave, because that could be construed as "involuntary imprisonment." However, the employee should be informed that leaving the interview will be considered a failure to cooperate, which may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination. At that point, the decision to terminate is no longer based on the employee's alleged guilt or innocence, but solely on insubordination.

Resignations are also common in investigations. If the employee prefers to resign rather than endure an investigation, have the employee sign a statement reflecting that decision. One huge mistake that overzealous interviewers often make after a resignation has been filed is to demand that the employee still answer questions or risk having the police, or other authorities, notified. That's extortion! However, requirements vary from state to state regarding reporting alleged abuse, and if that is the issue under investigation, inform the employee of your legal obligation to notify authorities.

Step Back for Inquiries
It's surprisingly common for family members and relatives of a suspended employee to call and demand information about an investigation. Depending on the severity of the allegations, other outside sources may also attempt to solicit information. The only information that should be disclosed is this: "Pending a complete investigation, no conclusions have been reached." This shows that the employer is fully investigating the incident without rushing to judgment. More importantly, it prevents management from making premature statements that might later have to be retracted.

Stand Behind Your Decisions

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