Supervisors faced with difficult employees can’t always put aside their emotions. That’s why it’s best for everyone involved if HR takes the lead investigating employee infractions and decides on the appropriate discipline. A prompt, fair and dispassionate investigation by HR professionals is the key to avoiding unnecessary lawsuits.
Having HR conduct investigations also helps ensure that the organization applies the rules similarly for all employees, regardless of race, nationality, disability or other protected characteristics.
Recent case: Samuel Ellison, an employee of a retail warehouse club, had a long history of arriving late, leaving early and generally needing to clean up his act at work. One day he pointed his finger in a supervisor’s face and said, “I will kill your __s.”
The supervisor reported the incident to the HR office, which conducted an investigation. The company required such an investigation in every case in which the employee might be fired. The final authority to terminate rested with the HR office, not the store manager or the supervisor.
The HR office considered several factors, including the supervisor’s spotless record and Ellison’s spotty one. It then fired Ellison for breaking the rules against threatening violence.
Ellison sued, alleging he was disabled and had been fired because he took time off for medical appointments. But the court didn’t buy it. Instead, it looked at the dispassionate investigation conducted by the HR office and said its decision was a legitimate one. Ellison showed no evidence casting doubt on the HR office’s decision, so the court dismissed the case. (Ellison v. B.J.’s Wholesale, No. 06-CV-4977, DC NJ, 2007)
Final note: This case shows the many reasons why HR should take the disciplinary lead. Managers and supervisors shouldn’t be the ones to fire employees—the risk is too great that their possible prejudices will taint the decision. It’s far better to conduct an independent investigation and base a decision on dispassionate facts. Of course, a temporary suspension may be in order if violence is anticipated.
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