During my human resources career, I’ve conducted more than my fair share of investigations. Some that turned out to be nothing and others that has serious consequences. Needless to say, investigations are not fun for anyone involved. Today’s reader question deals with handling the situation.
I was recently promoted to the top sales rep at my company!
Last week, I made a sale and submitted the paperwork for processing. Now the customer is stating we never met. In fact, the customer sent a letter to the accounts receivable department stating that we never met. The customer’s letter was sent to HR and now HR is questioning me. How do I handle this?
Obviously, we don’t know enough about the specific situation to know what the customer is thinking and/or doing and whether a policy or procedure was broken. That being said, it can be a serious shock when an employee finds out human resources is investigating something that involves them – whether they are the focus of the investigation or just that their name has come up in conversation.
Because investigations can have consequences, I asked a labor attorney to share his thoughts. Mark Neuberger is with the firm of Foley & Lardner. Mark has shared his expertise with us before. This post about the proper way to terminate someone is one of my favorites. (And please remember that Mark’s comments should not be construed as legal advice – you know the drill.)
Obviously, you work with human resources regularly during investigations. What should employees remember when they’re asked to meet with HR regarding an investigation (regardless of their involvement)?
Every employee has a duty to reasonably cooperate with an employer’s investigation. For an at-will employee (no written contract) at a private sector employer, failure to reasonably cooperate with your employer’s investigation could be grounds for discipline or discharge.
At the same time, an employee should quickly assess whether they are being interviewed as a witness or as a target for wrongdoing. If the employee suspects they are the target of something that might constitute criminal conduct, they would be well advised to immediately consult with an attorney. However, contrary to popular misconception, a private sector employee has no federal constitutional rights against their employer and, therefore, no right to have an attorney present during employer interviews. Employees who work for any entity of federal, state or local government have an entirely different set of rules, because they, unlike private sector employees, have constitutional rights.
A big concern for employees when they speak to human resources is confidentiality. Can you share some insight into how confidential investigations are conducted?
No investigation will ever be 100 percent confidential. The person you talk to will eventually have to report it to someone else higher up in management. The question is whether management is taking reasonable steps to keep those in the know in a very tight circle. Shame on the company that doesn’t try to do its best in this regard.
As much as we in HR tell employees to keep a matter confidential, it seems like stories will start floating around the office. If an employee is approached by a co-worker and asked what happened during the investigation meeting with HR, is there something an employee can say?
In another job, I used to sit right outside of the HR manager’s office. Merely by watching who went in and out, I was sometimes able to figure out what was going on. So again, nothing will ever be 100 percent confidential.
The best thing employees can do is not gossip and speculate. I understand that saying that is much easier said than done. However, in the end it is most likely another employee and not the company that will be harmed by the gossip mill so try to respect your co-workers’ concerns.
Another concern for employees is retaliation. If an employee feels they are being retaliated against because they’ve spoken to HR, what can they do?
Whenever an employee is interviewed as part of any investigation, the employee should ask ‘If I am in any way retaliated against, who should I tell?’
In this situation, a customer is also involved. If an employee feels a customer isn’t telling the entire story, could they address the situation with their manager or HR? Wouldn’t that just come across as sour grapes or making excuses?
The employee should be candid with management. When a customer is involved, unfortunately many times, a business might tend to want to keep the customer happy to the detriment of the employee. When I worked in a supermarket during high school, the manager repeatedly told us ‘the customer is always right.’ What is almost always a bad idea in this situation is for the employee to pick up the phone or send off an email to the customer and start ‘mixing it up’ with the customer. That will almost always end badly for the employee.
Many thanks to Mark for sharing his expertise with us. Staying calm, cool and collected is a worthwhile strategy. If you want to get more insight from Mark and the other attorneys at Foley, be sure to check out their blogs.
Image courtesy of Sharlyn Lauby4