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Thorough investigation makes discipline stick

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in Firing,Human Resources

If, like many HR professionals, you really agonize over termination decisions, here’s a reason to relax a little. Firing someone for wrong-doing doesn’t require you to be absolutely right about what happened.

As long as you conduct a reasonable investigation and make the decision based on the facts as you understand them, a court won’t second-guess you. Simply put, you don’t have to be absolutely right as long as you acted in good faith.

That’s because courts don’t want to “retry” every employment decision, even if the employee is convinced the employer was wrong about crucial facts.

Recent case: Carole worked as a nurse at a nursing home. A patient died during one of her shifts. The patient’s sister called the police, claiming Carole had not performed CPR. Carol maintained she did nothing wrong. The police found no criminal activity, and the nursing home exonerated Carole, concluding she hadn’t done anything wrong enough to warrant termination.

However, Carole was fired a few months later after being written up for not following directions and for altering the effective date of her CPR certification.

Carole sued, alleging her termination was in retaliation for speaking with the police about the patient’s death.

The court refused to second-guess the employer’s explanation for why she was fired. It noted that HR had investigated each situation before starting progressive discipline. Based on the facts it uncovered, the nursing home concluded that Carole had been insubordinate in altering her CPR certificate.

Carole wasn’t able to show that she had been fired in retaliation, and the court said it didn’t want to essentially reopen the employer’s investigation even if Carole believed she had been wrongly disciplined each step of the way. (Tingle v. Arbors at Hilliard, et al., No. 11-3494, 6th Cir., 2012)

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