Sometimes, serious allegations—possible theft, sexual or racial harassment or violence—surface against employees. How you respond can be crucial to limiting your organization’s liability. The best response may be calling a timeout in the form of administrative leave pending an investigation.
You can safely do so without fear that the move will generate even more litigation from a suspected wrongdoer.
Recent case: Shanda Killen, who is a dark-skinned black woman, worked for a home for people with mental disabilities. Her job included handling Social Security and other payments for patients.
A supervisor (who is also black but has light skin) received an anonymous report that someone was taking patients’ money. She started a financial audit and suspended Killen during the investigation. During the audit, Killen claimed that the lighter-skinned supervisor made comments about Killen’s dark skin, allegedly telling her she wouldn’t make it into.
Eventually, the supervisor fired Killen when thousands of dollars that she controlled appeared to be missing. Killen sued, alleging she had suffered a racially hostile environment due to her dark skin. She claimed two adverse employment actions: being placed on administrative leave and being fired.
The court said that placing Killen on administrative leave pending an investigation was not an adverse employment action and couldn’t be the basis for a lawsuit. And while firing her was adverse, the employer had a good reason—the investigation showed thousands of dollars had disappeared from clients’ assets during Killen’s watch. (Killen v. Northwestern Human Services, et al., No. 06-4100, ED PA, 2007)
Final note: Discrimination based on shade of skin is illegal color discrimination. But in this case, it appears that Killen was just using that as a way to deflect attention from what might have been theft. The court saw through it.