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Zip it! Keep all investigations confidential

by on
in HR Management,Human Resources

Employees who participate in internal investigations into discrimination charges are protected from retaliation. That’s why it’s good policy to keep investigations confidential. Don’t divulge the names of cooperating employees to anyone who doesn’t need to know.

That way, no employee can allege that a supervisor held his cooperation against him.

Recent case: Crist, who is black, worked for a lumber company for almost 25 years. He received regular promotions, working his way up from press operator to press line lead.

During Crist’s final year with the company, someone sent an anonymous letter to HR complaining that a supervisor had used sexually explicit language during a team meeting and used profanity during another meeting. It also said another supervisor had made a “racist” joke.

HR investigated the allegations. As part of that process, it interviewed 37 employees, including Crist. Even­­tually, one of the managers was fired.

Shortly after the investigation concluded, Crist learned that he and several other workers would be demoted as part of a reduction in force. Crist accepted the demotion, but was soon offered a promotion.

Instead of taking it, he quit. Then he sued, alleging that his demotion was payback for cooperating with the investigation.

His case went nowhere because he couldn’t show that anyone in­­volved in the demotion decision knew anything about HR’s investigation or that Crist cooperated. Therefore, the court said, retaliation was impossible.

His case was dismissed. (Brew v. Weyerhaeuser, No. 12-31096, 5th Cir., 2013)

Final note: The best way to keep investigations confidential is to outsource them. Many law firms provide investigation services and know how to run them without creating additional problems such as retaliation claims. It’s money well spent.

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