Does your HR office take an active role in workplace investigations? If not, it should. By centralizing the investigative and decision-making functions, you increase the odds that your organization’s disciplinary decisions will be fair and evenhanded. It doesn’t hurt to have an unbiased set of eyes reviewing workplace complaints and making certain that everyone is treated fairly without regard to age, sex, race or other protected characteristics.
In addition, keeping all records available in one place—with HR—makes it much easier to coordinate a legal defense. Finally, when HR oversees investigations, the process becomes more transparent. Outsiders (read: judges and juries) are more likely to trust that the decisions HR professionals make are more free of bias than those made by supervisors or managers who may have personal stakes in the outcomes.
Recent case: Rodney Brewington, who is black, was a nurse supervisor at a rehabilitation facility. During his shift, he was the most senior manager on site. When a subordinate reported that two residents were caught engaging in sexual conduct, Brewington shrugged it off as consensual sex.
However, the facility had rules that required staff to report incidents where there were reasons to believe there was sexual contact involving residents who didn’t have the mental capacity to consent. Because such contact might be viewed as abusive and expose the company to liability, it called in Brewington to explain why he hadn’t immediately reported the conduct.
The HR office investigated and concluded that Brewington was less than honest about how he had handled the incident. HR also determined that it should have been obvious that the female resident wasn’t competent. The facility fired Brewington.
He sued for discrimination, alleging that a white nurse hadn’t been fired over the same incident, even though she hadn’t reported the matter either.
The court dismissed the case, saying the two were treated fairly based on their relative authority. (Brewington v. Sunbridge Regency North Carolina, No. 1:06-CV-1112, MD NC, 2007)