If you get a group of business professionals together, the stories begin. We all have a “I thought I had seen it all, then this happened…” story. Here’s one of those situations.
I’m a newly promoted supervisor working in the prison system. I have endured two assaults from two different inmates. I have documented reports on file with the department regarding both incidents.
I expressed to prison administration that I wanted to file charges against the inmates. I was told that an investigation needed to be conducted before I’m able to bring forth charges. To date, I have never been interviewed about the incident or told that an investigation has been conducted. I continue to ask weekly and have never received an answer so I could proceed to press charges.
First of all, I certainly hope that the person writing this note is okay. Assault is serious.
While some of this situation could be unique to the prison system, employees being assaulted isn’t necessarily industry specific. When I worked for the airline, a customer punched a ticket agent over a flight delay. So, while we can’t get into specifics, I think we can keep this conversation at a high level and still benefit from the discussion.
To help us with this situation, I asked our friend Kate Bischoff to share her knowledge. Kate is an employment attorney and HR consultant at k8bisch, LLC. She’s shared her experience with us before – “Should I Quit or Wait to Get Fired” is one of my favorites.
Please remember that her comments should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to any specific factual situations. If you have specific detailed questions, they should be addressed directly with your friendly neighborhood labor attorney.
Kate, if an employee is harassed, bullied, or assaulted by a customer, supplier, or another employee, what should they do?
[Bischoff] Tell a manager. Managers are the employer. They execute the organization’s vision and give employees day-to-day work direction. Because they have this role, managers are also obligated to act as the employer when issues like this come up. That action is to do something to make the conduct stop. A manager may go to HR or other senior managers to take action.
The law is clear – when a third party (customer, vendor, independent contractor, etc.) harasses an employee, an employer can still be held liable for their conduct when the employer doesn’t take steps to first prevent and then put an end to the conduct once they learn of it. This means organizations should have a harassment policy that includes harassment and/or other inappropriate conduct by third-parties and includes a mechanism to provide employees ways to report inappropriate conduct. One of the most common and effective ways to do this is to tell a manager.
While bullying itself may not be against the law, employers are not free to let it happen, even when the bullying is at the hands of a valued customer. Employers that work to make the employment environment free from bullying behavior are better employers.
Does the organization have an obligation to investigate? Why or why not?
[Bischoff] Organizations have an obligation to do something to make the conduct stop. Investigating is often the first step as the employer needs to know what is going on or what has happened. An impartial and thorough investigator can determine if the conduct occurred and whether an employer is obligated to do something about it. Doing something may include:
- Disciplining other employees,
- Ceasing business with a customer, or
- Shifting responsibilities (without demoting or otherwise negatively affecting the subject employee) so that the employee is no longer in the line of fire.
Does the organization have an obligation to tell the person bringing the claim what’s going on? If not, why?
[Bischoff] No. Organizations are not obligated to keep anyone up to speed on the details on an investigation. It is natural for those who come forward to want to know what is going on, but organizations should not share the details. The details are ripe for fodder around a water cooler and can create an unnecessary distraction to the entire organization. Instead, they should work hard to end the conduct and tell individuals that they are doing so.
More importantly, organizations should thank the people who come forward and explain the organization’s anti-retaliation policies. Organizations that create an atmosphere where employees feel comfortable bringing concerns forward are better positioned to protect themselves.
If an employee decides to pursue outside action against someone (i.e. customer, coworker, supplier, etc.) who has allegedly done them harm, do they have an obligation to tell the company? Why or why not?
[Bischoff] No, but they should. No organization likes to be caught off guard, and finding out about a lawsuit between an employee and a customer is likely to do just that. Even if the employee thinks the organization has no dog in the fight, employees should understand that the organization will likely be impacted by outside action since the incident happened there or was related due to its business dealings.
This is not to say that an organization can discipline or punish the employee. In many cases, this would be unlawful, but organizations will still want to know. They may want to help support the employee and prepare for the impact on the business. Even if not a party, organizations will still get asked questions.
Final question. In your experience, what role can human resources play in helping the organization heal when violence happens in the workplace?
[Bischoff] Human resources can do great things to help an organization heal by bringing employees together to express their concerns individually or as a group and explaining what the organization is doing to improve conditions so situations like this don’t happen again. The more open and transparent an HR team can be about how the organization addresses concerns and its commitment to a safe working environment, the better.
A huge thanks to Kate for sharing her knowledge on whether HR should investigate this incident. I know this wasn’t an easy situation. If you want to read more of Kate’s insights, be sure to check out her blog. It’s a must read.
I’ve said this before: Employees need to feel they can report concerns to the organization. AND that the organization will properly investigate the situation. Not only is there a liability to ignoring an employee’s complaint, it’s just not the right thing to do.
Image taken by Sharlyn Lauby after speaking at a very credible corporate event in Dallas, TX9