Overly sensitive employee or bully boss? Trust instincts to determine who’s right

Sometimes, HR professionals have to make judgment calls about who is telling the truth. In fact, just about every workplace investigation requires assessing the credibility of employees, co-workers and managers who disagree about what happened.

Take, for example, an employee who complains about a supervisor’s harassment or hostility. One of their stories is going to seem more believable than the other. Go with your gut, knowing that a judge considering the same facts will probably come to the same conclusion. After all, employers don’t have to be absolutely right—as long as they can show they conducted a reasonable and fair investigation.

Recent case: Agnes Ndene, who is from Senegal, worked in the computer lab of the Columbus Academy, a private school. She thought her supervisor was calling her names behind her back. For example, when Ndene overheard her boss talk about dogs, rats and pigs, she assumed the references were to her.

Then Ndene overheard a conversation about trapping a rat in the computer lab. A short time later, the school held a fire drill. When Ndene returned to the lab, she found the doors locked. Putting two and two together, she assumed that she was the “rat” that had been trapped.

Eventually, the school fired Ndene for erratic behavior and insubordination. She sued, alleging harassment on the basis of national origin and race.

The school produced testimony that students in the lab had recently been reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm, prompting much discussion about the book’s animal characters. Plus, school administrators were trying to trap a real rat that had been spotted in the lab. The court dismissed Ndene’s case, concluding this was a case of an overly sensitive employee, not a bullying supervisor. (Ndene v. Columbus Academy, No. 2:09-CV-892, SD OH, 2011)