When it comes to internal investigations looking into potential wrongdoings, it’s a good idea to put a wall between the investigator and the ultimate decision-maker. The investigator should present the facts of the case and leave drawing conclusions and deciding discipline to someone else.
Here’s one good reason: Investigators sometimes talk too much—especially when questioning the employee being investigated. A stray comment involving race, sex or another protected characteristic can lead to a lawsuit. Leaving the ultimate decisions to someone higher up ensures that such comments won’t taint the process.
Recent case: Miranda Sumerlin, who is black, worked for AmSouth Bank as a payroll representative. Her troubles began when routine monitoring showed she had deposited into her bank account more than $32,000 in small cash transactions over eight months.
An internal investigator questioned Sumerlin and allegedly told her she was being investigated because she was black, and she should not have been able to put that much money into her account.
AmSouth fired Sumerlin after her supervisor met with the head of corporate security to discuss the case. But first, Sumerlin was given a chance to explain the deposits. She refused. Then she sued for race discrimination, pointing to the investigator’s comments.
But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed her case. Because the investigator didn’t make the decision and the bank had good reason to be suspicious when Sumerlin refused to document the deposits, the investigator’s possible bias wasn’t relevant. (Sumerlin v. AmSouth, No. 06-15916, 11th Cir., 2007)
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