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Uniformity key to investigations that stand up in court

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

When it comes to employee complaints and how your organization responds to them, uniformity is the most important factor. Don’t thoroughly investigate certain claims while disregarding complaints from employees you view as troublemakers or habitual complainers.

Here’s why: If one of those troublemakers sues, that employee may try to show you treated his or her complaint less seriously because he or she belongs to a protected class (e.g., race, age, national origin). The only way to assure the employee won’t find a suspicious pattern is to treat each complaint the same. That means developing and using a process that assures uniformity.

Recent case: Wilfred Fields, who is black, worked for Riverside Cement when a co-worker complained about him. A supervisor conducted a quick investigation, didn’t bother speaking to other witnesses and didn’t even ask Fields for his side of the story. Nonetheless, the supervisor suspended Fields.
When Fields later complained about a death threat, the supervisor took a long time to investigate and ultimately fired Fields. Also, the supervisor spoke only to non-black employees during the investigations involving Fields. Because Fields may be able to show that differences in the investigations depended on race, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the case should go to trial. A jury will decide whether race discrimination occurred. (Fields v. Riverside Cement, No. 05-55063, 9th Cir., 2007)

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