Make sure your investigations are thorough — Business Management Daily: Free Reports on Human Resources, Employment Law, Office Management, Office Communication, Office Technology and Small Business Tax Business Management Daily

Employers have great leeway when it comes to discharging employees. In fact, they can even be wrong about the discharge reason.

But many employers get into trouble by failing to conduct a thorough and fair investigation. If the employee can prove the investigation was so cursory that it was just an excuse to cover up an illegal motivation such as age discrimination, the employer may lose big.

Recent case:
Susan Scanlon had an unblemished record as a labor and delivery nurse, having worked for the Temple University Health System since 1966. That all changed when a patient under her care miscarried. Scanlon followed what she believed was hospital policy: She placed the fetus in formalin.

The technician who worked with Scanlon complained to management, which conducted an investigation and fired Scanlon without giving her a specific reason.

When she was fired, she was 61 years old and working the day shift. Several much younger nurses had requested that shift and were transferred when Scanlon was terminated.

She sued for age discrimination. The hospital testified Scanlon had been fired for failing to place an IV properly, for violating hospital policy by placing the miscarried fetus in formalin and for failing to comfort the patient. It said all this was based on its investigation.

The problem for the hospital was that there were plenty of witnesses who testified about what happened that day, all of whom could show that the hospital’s reasons were false. For example, it became clear that the hospital rules did say a fetus should be handled the way Scanlon did.

The jury concluded Scanlon had been terminated because of her age and the investigation was just a sham excuse for getting rid of her. Scanlon got $273,000. (Scanlon v. Temple University Health System, No. 08-1402, 3rd Cir., 2009)

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