What are the rights of the accused in a workplace investigation?

I am a manager who is responsible for multiple projects and works with people from different departments. A few months ago, I was accused of being difficult to work with, and HR discussed it with me. Now, I am being told that the complaints have increased. I am quite shocked, as for the past couple of months, my dealings have been only with a small group of people on a single project, and I thought that everything was fine. What are my rights to be able to get facts of these accusations and provide the opportunity to defend myself?

Posted  04-22-2015

Ann Kiernan replies:

The company has a clear obligation to fairly evaluate and, if appropriate, then to impartially investigate employee complaints. That obligation includes respecting the rights of the accused.  Just because you have been accused, does not mean that you are guilty, and the employer should base any action only on objective, verifiable facts and the reasonable inferences drawn from them. There should be a preponderance of the credible evidence supporting the complaint before any disciplinary action is taken against you.

In any workplace investigation you should be treated with professionalism and respect, and be given an opportunity to defend yourself and present documents, information, and witnesses on your behalf.

A good interview might go something like this:

  • Let me outline the nature of the complaint we have received from ______. (Unless there is a realistic risk of intimidation or retaliation, you should be told the name of the complainant.)
  • What is your response to what you have heard?
  • What is your version of the events that took place?
  • Are there any witnesses who support your position?
  • Are there any documents, including emails, that support your position?
  • Is there anyone else we should talk to as part of our investigation?
  • Why do you think that [the complainant] would make such an allegation
  • Do you have any constructive ideas on how this issue could be resolved?

I urge you to fully cooperate in any investigations of your conduct. Earning a reputation with HR for being forthcoming and honest will serve you well. Make sure that you read and understand your company’s policies and procedures, too.

You might also use this as an opportunity to do some self-reflection: Could you benefit from some coaching on communication skills? Might some advice on how to help your employees succeed enable you to meet your own goals? You could investigate what training resources are available at your company, as well as services offered through your Employee Assistance Program.

Congratulations on doing the hard job of managing, and good luck.

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.

2015-06-12T05:40:32+00:00

About the Author:

Ann Kiernan has litigated claims of wrongful discharge and discrimination before state and federal courts and administrative matters before the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, representing both employers and employees. Ms. Kiernan co-hosted The Employee Rights Forum, a weekly radio call-in show reaching up to a half-million listeners in the New York metropolitan area, and her articles on employment law have been published in many books and magazines. Both as a firm partner and as a director, Ms. Kiernan gained solid experience in management and human resources compliance. She has worked with Fair Measures since 1997.