Lately, my son and I have been reading Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny, a lot. Knuffle Bunny tells the story of Trixie, who loses her stuffed bunny (and prized possession) during a trip to the laundromat with her Daddy. When she discovers her loss, she tries to tell her Daddy, but he does not understand her baby babble. When Mommy catches on, the family rushes back to the laundromat to find Knuffle Bunny. I don’t want to spoil the end for anyone, but suffice it to say that when we finish the book, my little guy looks up at me as says, “She’s so happy.”
What lessons can employers take away from this “cautionary tale”?
There are no hard and fast rules about how employees must complain about harassment or discrimination. Trixie, who had not yet learned to speak, did the best she could to communicate to her Daddy that Knuffle Bunny was missing. The fact that he did not understand her did not change his fatherly responsibility to help locate Knuffle Bunny. The same holds true for employers. In a perfect world, employees would lodge complaints in typed memos, dutifully turned into designated persons in the HR department. Our world, however, is far from perfect. Employees email, text, leave voice mails, scribble hand-written notes, make off-handed comments, and even say nothing at all. Regardless of how a manager or supervisor learns about harassment or discrimination, the rules are the same—investigate, remedy, and don’t retaliate.
Leave no stone unturned. When Trixie’s family first returned to the laundromat, they could not find Knuffle Bunny. It was not until Trixie’s Daddy redoubled his efforts that he found it. The same holds true for employers’ investigations. A half-assed investigation is no better than no investigation at all. If a document is missing, you better be able to convince a court that you took all reasonable efforts to locate it. If you conclude that an employee’s harassment complaint is unfounded, you better be sure you interviewed everyone identified as a potential witness. If you are going to discipline or terminate an employee, you better double check that you considered all documents and witnesses before reaching a conclusion. Courts are loath to second-guess employers’ business judgment, but will not hesitate if it appears an employer slacked in its investigatory responsibilities.