Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Jury award to alleged harassers illustrates importance of internal investigations

A Los Angeles jury has awarded $1.6 million to two white fire department captains suspended after a black firefighter they supervised had his meal laced with dog food. The captains alleged that they were made scapegoats for the misconduct of a Latino firefighter who placed dog food in the spaghetti dinner of a black coworker. The lawsuit centered on their claim that they were discriminated against because they are white, specifically that the fire department never conducted a formal investigation of the incident and disciplined them anyway under political pressure. The Los Angeles Times quotes a 34-year department veteran, "When it comes to a minority -- female or male -- and there's the word 'discrimination,' everybody runs and hides and puts their heads in the sand. The department is afraid to look at these things fairly."

Because we are so concerned about being fair to the victim, we often forget that the accused are entitled to same degree of fairness in an investigation. Just as a failure to reasonably remedy harassment can create liability problems, so can unjustly disciplining or terminating a wrongfully accused employee. Internal investigations must be conducted thoroughly, fairly, and impartially to avoid presenting liability problems from any of the involved parties.