Getting the Whole Story
by Char Coburn
Getting the Whole Story
When the need for investigations arise in employee matters, use common sense and detailed assessment versus snap judgments
Char Coburn is the director of Human Resources for the Bonanza Casino in Reno, Nev. She has been at the casino for the past 20 years, and is a human resources generalist who wears many hats. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Working in human resources rarely offers the exotic to investigate, such as the United Kingdom’s largest supermarket, TESCO’s, effort to uncover how much cost the methane in a cow’s belch or stale ketchup adds to the product’s carbon footprint, but we do face challenges. If investigations into personnel matters could be conducted like they do on television’s “CSI,” you could ask for some DNA, send it off to the FBI and you would have your answer in a few minutes. It doesn’t work that way in “real life,” be it at a gaming property or business or in a murder investigation.
We should never take an investigation lightly. The issue that generates the need to investigate is undoubtedly serious. We were advised by our attorney many years ago, to never fire an employee on the floor. In the event of employee misconduct, all supervisors and managers are instructed to “suspend, pending the completion of an investigation.” The individual is required to report to human resources at a specific time on a specific date, to offer their “side of the story.”
This does a couple of things. First, it avoids the unpleasantness on the casino floor or in other public areas that can result when someone is discharged, and it allows time to review all aspects of the employee’s performance to ascertain that terminating employment is appropriate.
I really do conduct an investigation, every time, without fail. It’s important to me that we treat all of our employees fairly. And, I hired the individual, so I feel obligated to help the person succeed, not fail.
Information that the employee provides is an important part of that investigation. If I discover that the file is well-documented, and the offense committed is severe enough and I reach the conclusion to “uninvite” the employee, I will follow through. I’m sure we have what we need to protect us from unemployment and other claims and the employee has been offered every opportunity to improve.
There are many serious situations that require an investigation. Theft, violence, assault and charges of harassment or discrimination all require that you look into the circumstances surrounding the allegations. In the case of harassment and discrimination, it isn’t uncommon that you have a he-said, she-said situation.
With the threat of an EEOC complaint resulting from a bad resolution, you have to bring forth all of your investigative talents. If the situation warrants, you should consider calling in an outside investigator. It may be somewhat costly, but could save you money in the long run.
If you decide to keep the investigation in-house, there are several things to consider. First, make a notebook or tablet and a file dedicated to the investigation. Next, you need to make a plan; who should be interviewed, what documents will you need, what records should be made, what should be asked, will a search be necessary and so forth. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a starting point. I’m not an attorney, and every situation must be taken on its own merits and you should consult counsel on all sensitive issues.
There are some constants of which you might not be aware. If you think performing a polygraph test will be as quick and easy as asking for DNA samples, you’re mistaken. The federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act 29 U.S.C. bans their use in most private employment settings. You could, of course, use one, as part of an investigation into a serious loss, but if you obtained information that found someone “guilty” you couldn’t use it and you’d be worse off than before you did the test. The Weingarten Rights Supreme Court decision allowing an employee, in a union setting, to request a co-worker’s presence in an investigative meeting that may lead to disciplinary action, was extended due to a decision in another case in 2000, to all employees. There are always EEOC considerations, as well. Of course, confidentiality is of paramount importance.
Nuts and bolts come next. How will you document? One of your goals must be to obtain signed statements from all persons involved. You must keep detailed notes and should sign and date them at the end of each interview. Retain an original, if possible, and copies of all documents you acquire during the process.
If the problem involves policy violations, make sure you have the original signed acknowledgement of the policy obtained from the employee. Keep these in your notebook or file, and make sure you store it in a locked, fireproof area at the end of each day.
You will need to use your best interviewing skills. Open-ended questions, re-phrasing, silence, all of the tools you use to get information. Once you reach a conclusion, inform everyone involved.
I remember an investigation involving a husband-wife controversy. He began dating an employee that his wife supervised. I will never forget one of his answers, “I had my shirt and shoes off because it was hot.” in the middle of December…I used silence, as I was at a loss for words.
I might have been able to use DNA in that one. It was a serious investigation, with a sad result, but I must admit I had to laugh once in a while.