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Questioning employees? Avoid ‘imprisonment’ charge by ensuring they know they may leave

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in Firing,Human Resources

It may sound silly, but there’s a very practical reason to be careful when questioning employees during an investigation: Some especially sensitive people may feel they are being held involuntarily—and sue for false imprisonment.

Let employees know they can take a break from your inquiries at any time.

Recent case: Leslie Burton was a manager at Carter Bloodcare and had a long history of alienating her subordinates. As employees quit or transferred to other jobs, management became concerned that Bur­­ton’s style was creating unnecessary conflict in the workplace.

The consultant the company hired to investigate employees’ allegations used a small, empty office to conduct interviews, some of which lasted an hour or two. The consultant called in Burton, closed the door for privacy and, for almost three hours, discussed Burton’s management style with her. Based in part on the consultant’s findings, Burton was terminated.

She then sued, alleging false im­­prisonment. She claimed that she was ambushed, cross-examined and essentially prevented from leaving the room for three hours.

The court tossed out her claim, reasoning that nothing about the session was so traumatic as to constitute false imprisonment. (Burton v. Carter Bloodcare, No. 02-11-00003, Court of Appeals of Texas, 2nd District, 2012)

Final note: The company kept Burton on staff for several years before deciding her behavior was unacceptable. Don’t let bully managers linger. Instead, heed warning signs such as sudden subordinate resignations and transfer requests.

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