An employee had performance issues so human resources and the manager put the employee on a 90-day performance improvement plan. But two days before it ended, the employee accused the manager of being a bully. In the past, we would meet with the employee to hear their allegations but take no action against the manager while we investigated. Our new policy is to put the manager on administrative leave. An investigation found the manager did nothing wrong, but the manager complained of being treated as guilty and as not receiving support. Coworkers believed the manager was guilty because they had been placed on leave. How should we navigate accusations?
My first piece of advice: Change your policy.
Yes, you should investigate every complaint, but your policy should not be to suspend every accused person. You’ve already seen how that can backfire. In your situation, a failing employee used your policy as a way to bully the manager.
What you need is a policy that is flexible and looks at the whole situation. Sometimes you will want to suspend the person while you investigate, and other times, the person can continue to work. Here’s what you will want to look at.
The Seriousness of the Accusation
A bullying complaint should probably not result in a suspension before the investigation. An accusation of sexual assault probably should (as well as calling the police).
Not all complaints are equal. A good question to ask yourself is, “If this accusation is found to be true, would we terminate the employee?” If the answer is yes, suspending is a reasonable choice. If the answer is no, then suspension probably isn’t the right path.
The Credibility of the Witness
First, you absolutely do want to investigate every accusation, even if you think the accuser is not trustworthy. But in this situation, the employee would be terminated in two days. Also, being on a PIP meant that the employee had ample time to speak to HR or another member of management, yet the employee waited until two days before the scheduled termination to say anything. This situation screams lack of credibility, and you should consider this.
On the other hand, a model employee that comes to you and reports inappropriate behavior has more credibility. That employee is not trying to save their own skin by accusing someone of something.
Both situations must be investigated, but when the reporting employee has no obvious ulterior motive, you should be faster to suspend the accused.
Conduct the Investigation as Quickly as Possible
In your situation, you felt it was best to hire an outside investigator. That is sometimes a brilliant thing to do — especially if one or both parties are senior-level employees or there is a conflict of interest with the HR person who would generally do the investigation. But for investigations that can be done in-house, you can wrap a lot of them up rather quickly.
When You Do Have to Suspend Someone During the Investigation
Suspension is a great tool to have when you need it, but as you found out, the suspended party doesn’t generally appreciate it. Of course, someone who is suspended and cleared should be paid for the suspension. But what to do about the reputation aspect?
If you suspend an employee and keep everything hush-hush, the employee will create stories about what happened upon returning. These stories are rarely good. So be honest with everyone. When your cleared employee returns, if the person wants you to, make it clear to the department that John did nothing wrong and was out because you take complaints seriously. Emphasize that John has your full support.
As for support during the suspension, keep in touch with updates and progress (while maintaining necessary confidentiality for the investigation).
You’re right to take harassment of all types seriously, but you don’t have to go overboard with suspensions. The new sensitivity to harassment is good, but don’t let it cloud your professional judgment.
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