I’ve written before about employees who have been suspended. In those older questions, the focus has been on the details of the incident. This reader note has a bit of different twist. It’s focused on what the employee should do.
I got suspended pending an investigation and did not get any details. It’s been a week. What kind of questions can I ask my boss so I’m not on a limb?
Before you say to yourself, “We can’t answer anything because we don’t know what happened.” Yes, that’s true. We don’t know what the employee was accused of. But there are some steps that an employee should take anytime something like this happens.
To offer some insights, I asked employment attorney Donna Ballman to help us out. She’s helped us before with one of my favorite posts titled, “Can You Bring Your Mother to a Meeting With HR?” Donna’s work focuses on employee-side employment law issues, so whether you’re an employee or an HR pro, these insights will prove to be valuable. Also, please remember that Donna’s comments should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to any specific factual situations. If you have detailed questions, they should be addressed directly with your friendly neighborhood labor attorney.
Donna, just as a refresher for our readers, what does “suspension pending investigation” mean?
[Ballman] Sometimes employers will suspend an employee if there is a complaint or possible disciplinary issue so they can investigate.
If an employee is suspended, what basic information should they know about the circumstances of their suspension?
[Ballman] There are three key questions employees need to ask:
- Find out if the suspension is with pay or without pay. Regardless of the answer, ask how long the suspension will be. A suspension without pay for an indefinite amount of time can amount to a termination. Employees don’t have to wait months or years to apply for unemployment or start applying for another job. If it’s a suspension with pay, that’s not a termination.
- Ask what you are expected to do during the suspension. There may be required times to check in with a supervisor or HR. Employees may be prohibited from entering the premises, even to have lunch with a coworker. If the premises have other offices like a doctor’s office and you need to go there during the suspension, make sure that won’t be held against you.
- Ask yourself whether others did the same thing you were accused of who weren’t suspended. This last question is for the individual. What’s happened to others in a similar situation. And were they of a different race, age, sex, national origin, or other protected status from you? Or were you suspended right after announcing a pregnancy, seeking FMLA, or seeking a disability accommodation? If so, then the suspension might be illegal discrimination.
If you think you have potential claims, you might want to take some time during the suspension to talk to an employee-side employment lawyer in your state about your rights and discuss some strategy.
This note says the employee has been suspended a week. In your experience, how long is the typical suspension?
[Ballman] There’s really no such thing as a ‘typical’ suspension. That being said, I hear x-number of days or x-number of weeks as the most common suspensions.
It’s really a dirty trick to suspend indefinitely without pay because the employee is in limbo and doesn’t know if they are still employed or not. Some employers will do this and then claim the employee quit when they apply for unemployment or start applying for other jobs.
I would completely understand if an employee is surprised by being suspended and they forget the information. Who should they follow-up with if they have questions about their status?
[Ballman] If they have questions, they should ask HR or the person who suspended them. I suggest getting any clarification in writing, such as by email or text, and keeping a copy for proof.
If you get no response, maybe check with someone higher up. Failing to respond is really unprofessional.
Last question, if an employee feels that the company is taking too long or not responding to their questions, is there something they can do?
[Ballman] At some point, and it’s hard to judge, a suspension without pay is a firing. It’s hard to say where that line is, but the employee needs to follow up and if nobody is responding, then it may be time to apply for unemployment and start applying for other jobs.
What employees don’t want to do is start contacting witnesses or the person who complained about them. This could result in being fired for interfering with the investigation. Also don’t start threatening or doing anything that could be deemed insubordination. You are under a microscope, so don’t give the company a reason for termination.
My thanks to Donna for sharing her knowledge with us on this difficult topic. Please be sure to check out her blog, Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home. It’s been named one of the American Bar Association’s 100 best legal blogs. And she’s the author of the award-winning book “Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards.”
While organizations should be providing employees with information during suspensions, I also believe that sometimes the employee is in shock about what’s going on and they forget to ask. If companies want to get to the truth, then they need to answer employee questions. I totally agree with Donna that it’s incredibly unprofessional to leave an employee in limbo.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby while exploring the streets of Oklahoma City, OK20