Here’s a bit of good news for HR professionals who worry that they aren’t conducting perfect investigations. Courts just want to see employers act reasonably. That doesn’t mean investigations must prove employee misconduct beyond a reasonable doubt.
In fact, as long as an employer conducts a reasonable investigation, its conclusion can be factually wrong. It will still stand up in court.
Recent case: Patty Martin, who is black, was fired from her production job with Mars Petcare after she got into a shouting match with a white co-worker she believed was bossing her around. The co-worker complained tothat Martin had gotten “in her face” and bumped her as they argued.
Mars Petcare has a policy of firing any employee who initiates physical contact with a co-worker. It launched an investigation. After speaking with witnesses and Martin, the investigator concluded that Martin had touched her co-worker. That’s when Mars Petcare fired Martin.
She sued, alleging race discrimination and claiming she never touched her co-worker.
The court said the evidence of physical contact was unclear—one witness said she saw the contact, but another didn’t. That didn’t save Martin’s case. Since Mars Petcare had conducted a reasonable investigation by talking to all the witnesses, its conclusion didn’t have to be absolutely correct. Martin’s case was dismissed. (Martin v. Mars Petcare, No. 2:09-CV-0363, SD OH, 2010)
Final note: Remember this case when you get bogged down with indecision about who did what to whom.
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