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Handle criminal inquiry with care, sensitivity

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

No one likes being accused of a criminal offense if they are innocent. Be careful about making such accusations publicly—you could end up being sued for defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t investigate apparently missing funds and similar, possibly criminal cases. Just use sensitivity and discretion. Discuss the problem with the em­­ployee in private, not in front of co-workers or customers. Keep the investigation confidential, involving only those who need to know about it.

Recent case: Beronne Eliacin worked at a nursing home as a certified nursing assistant. When someone stole a $5 gift card from a resident, an anonymous tipster claimed Eliacin was responsible.

A security staffer then went to Eliacin’s home and asked her to re­­turn the card. She denied knowing anything about the theft and said she didn’t have the card. She provided a written statement denying the allegations.

Eliacin then contacted the nursing director to inquire about the investigation. She was informed that everyone had been investigated and that her job was not in jeopardy. But Eliacin stopped going to work, claiming she could not work under a cloud of suspicion.

When the nursing home terminated Eliacin for not showing up for work, she sued, alleging race discrimination and retaliation.

But the court said Eliacin had not been singled out because of her race or other protected characteristic, nor had she been embarrassed or harassed in front of nursing home residents or co-workers. It threw out her case, concluding that interviewing Eliacin was reasonable in light of the tip received. (Eliacin v. Fiala, et al., No. 3:09-CV-00438, ND NY, 2011)

Final note: The nursing home handled the situation just right. It treated everyone with dignity while fulfilling its responsibility to follow up on a theft and in­­­formation it had received.

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