Corporate investigation results in public announcement

by on May 4, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Favorable legal outcomes to work investigation don’t make announcement a wise move

Supervisor Ken Cappelli blinked as HR Manager Anne Porter tore into him. “Darn it, Ken!” she said. “You should have known better than to send that e-mail about Bill Jones’s corporate investigation and termination to the whole plant without consulting me.”

“What’s wrong with the e-mail?” Ken asked. “It’s all true.”

“Yeah,” Anne said. “But the e-mail goes into too many details. It cites Bill by name and says he was fired ‘after a thorough corporate investigation for being out of compliance with policy regarding personal use of company property.’ ” “That’s exactly what happened,” Ken said. “We did investigate, and kept you posted. You know Bill even admitted taking lumber and sheetrock to use in his home expansion project.” “But why did you feel you had to publicize what happened?” Anne asked.

Power of example

“The power of example,” Ken replied promptly. “We’ve noticed a lot of shrinkage in the materials inventory, and I suspect other people have been helping themselves, too.”

“But you could have made that point without getting so specific,” Anne said. “You could have referred to ‘recent incidents’ or something like that without mentioning Bill by name. And when you talk about a corporate investigation,” she went on, “it sounds like we’re accusing him of a crime.”

“Well, maybe this was a crime,” Ken said. “Bill stole from the company.”

“But we decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to prosecute,” Anne said. “Plus, you sent the e-mail to 600 recipients! It’s like you put it in the newspaper. “Here’s my worry,” she added. “What if Bill decides that e-mail defamed him? It’ll be your fault if he sues us.”

Bill did sue the company for libel over Ken’s e-mail.

Did he win?

No, Bill didn’t win his libel case. He lost in court because the e-mail about his termination was accurate, and he couldn’t prove supervisor Ken was out to get him. If Bill had been able to show Ken recklessly ignored the truth, he might have been able to prove libel, even if the e-mail turned out to be accurate in the end. But this wasn’t the case here.

Unwise move
The favorable legal outcome for the company after the corporate investigation didn’t make Ken’s e-mail a wise move. As HR Manager Anne said, Ken could have made his point less stridently. He could have waited a few days or weeks and then stressed the policy on use of corporate property – letting people connect the dots to Bill’s departure on their own.

Guidance for supervisors

To keep this kind of ill-advised communication from becoming a potential issue in your workplace, consider instructing supervisors to:

  1. avoid commenting on terminations in public
  2. check with HR before trying to make any related policy points.

Cite: Noonan v. Staples, No. 07-2159, 1st Cir., 8/21/08. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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