Workplace Investigations: Avoiding Costly Litigation

In a recent case coming out of Alberta, Canada, an employee’s employment with Home Hardware was terminated after seventeen years leading to a costly penalty imposed on the employer. The employee was in a supervisory position with a Home Hardware distribution centre and was accused of “sexual harassment” by a female employee who was later found to have ulterior motives for making the claim. Amongst these motives was “payback” for a bad performance review and a transfer away from her boyfriend. The allegation came 4 months after the transfer and witnesses came forward stating they had overheard the accuser saying she would get back at the supervisor for the transfer. The existence of ulterior motives by no means diminishes the validity of claims of this nature and the employer has a duty to investigate these claims. The facts in this case show that the investigation was flawed in a number of ways and the accused employee was awarded a total of $680,000.00 by the court! That is a heavy price to pay due to the actions of a vindictive employee and a poor investigation into the claims. As an avid industry insider, I consistently follow stories and news of workplace investigations both in Canada and the US to stay up to date on the latest court decisions and precedents. Although the above mentioned case occurred in 2002, only recently has the appeal process been finalized, therefore prompting this story. As a licensed investigator and former police detective, when it comes to workplace investigations in the areas of workplace violence, theft in the workplace, sexual harassment, substance abuse and even cargo theft,I constantly find myself dispensing advice related to these topics based on my past experiences. I can offer a few tips on avoiding costly mistakes when it comes to internal workplace investigations. This is by no means an exhaustive list of tips but a few I can offer based on the case at hand.

Any investigation has to be conducted in a completely impartial, unbiased and objective manner:

– ideally use a third party investigator with no relationship whatsoever to any parties of an investigation.
– ensure all witnesses, alleged offenders and victims are interviewed
– obtain statements as soon as reasonably possible from all parties

If using an internal investigator:

– ideally use an employee from a different location
– ensure the investigator has experience investigating the particular type of offence, i.e. workplace violence, theft, sexual harassment, substance abuse, etc.
– ensure the investigator has received training in conducting workplace investigations

If using an external investigator:

– ensure they are licensed to conduct investigations in the particular province or state where the offence originates
– ensure the external investigator is insured

Ensure you have comprehensive workplace policies covering various scenarios, i.e. workplace violence,sexual harassment, internal theft, etc.

– have policies readily available and easily communicated to employees
– provide training for internal investigators and also employees on existing policies
– ensure policies are closely followed once an investigation is initiated