Don’t hesitate to turn an investigation over to an expert from outside the organization when there is any doubt about fairness. Doing so may short-circuit a lawsuit. An independent investigator helps maintain the credibility of the investigation and might be able to spot well-hidden discrimination.
Recent case: Joe Melanson, who is older than 40, worked for a private company that provides security for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. A trained K-9 officer, one of his primary duties was to sign out explosives, plant them around the facility and then have bomb-sniffing dogs seek out the devices. Then he would return the explosives to storage and complete an inventory.
Melanson was warned twice about work deficiencies and told that if he disobeyed any rules again, he might be fired.
Then an inventory of the explosives locker showed that part of an explosive device was missing. Melanson was the last one to check it out and claimed he had returned it. The part was later found in the field, and it had obviously been exposed to the elements for some time. The company fired Melanson and hired a younger K-9 officer in his place.
Before it fired Melanson, the company turned the investigation over to an outside consultant. He interviewed everyone involved, reviewed copies of the handbook and rules and concluded that Melanson was indeed at fault.
Melanson sued, alleging age discrimination. He contended there had been no specific inventory rule in place. But the independent investigator had uncovered the rule. The court dismissed Melanson’s case because he couldn’t show that the company’s stated termination reason was an excuse to cover up age discrimination. (Melanson v. Covenant Homeland Security, No. 1:07-CV-564, ED TX, 2009)
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- Reversing disciplinary decisions can spark bias lawsuit