How do I conduct an internal investigation?

If you weren't present and can't speak from personal observation, you will need to speak to those who were present. This is particularly true if the defendant denies the offense. Meet with witnesses as soon after the incident as possible. The questions asked should be open-ended and phrased to show no bias to influence answers.

Keep notes of witnesses' comments. These will be part of any documentation you compile when you next meet with the employee. During this investigative stage, you may want to put the employee on suspension to minimize the tension as you look into the situation.

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If you will be interviewing several individuals who were present or are familiar with the situation, ask each the same questions. Compare notes. If you are dealing with members of your own department, you should be familiar enough with their relationship with the employee to identify any lies told you to protect or hurt the employee.

Once you are familiar with the incident as told by your staff and others, visit with other managers to discuss the incident to determine how they might have handled similar situations. Go to the Human Resources Department as well. Depending on the nature of the incident, you may even want a representative from the Human Resources Department with you as you investigate the situation.

Once you have insights into the who, what, where, when, and how, you are better able to meet with the employee and discuss the situation further.

Can I be sued for not firing some employees?

This problem arises when a manager becomes aware that one of her employees may cause harm to others yet fails to take any action to prevent the employee from in fact causing harm.

If the employee should subsequently injure another employee, a customer, or another person, the injured party may sue the employer for being negligent in retaining the dangerous employee (called "negligent retention"). The situation first arises during the hiring process—when candidates' past history has to be well screened for evidence of violent or erratic behavior. But problems can occur, as well, after an employee is on board. Personal problems can find an outlet through aggressive or abusive behavior or drug or alcohol use. Sometimes advancement in a company can transfer someone without critical qualifications or with a history of problems into a position where he might be dangerous to others.

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To limit your risk of being sued for negligently retaining a dangerous worker, watch for any signs that an employee is unstable or unfit to remain in his position. Candidates for promotion to positions that place them in very different venues should undergo a reference check where any questions exist.

Of course, investigate thoroughly any complaints of employee misconduct. In some cases, you may be able to effectively deal with a problem through training or by changing the employee's responsibilities. In others, however, your safest recourse may be to fire the employee.

How do I counsel employees for misconduct or rule violations?

Most organizations have two counseling tracks: One is for performance problems (see Chapter 6); the other is for rule violations and other misconduct.

Counseling for rule violations or other misconduct begins immediately with a verbal or written warning, depending on the nature of the infraction. Sometimes an employee is suspended without pay for a period of time to rethink his behavior. A repetition of the rule violation thereafter is followed immediately by termination. Where the misbehavior is very serious, there may be no effort in counseling—the employee may be fired immediately. Termination may actually be the first step and not the last step in disciplining a rule violator—for instance, in the case of violation of safety rules or theft.

The counseling process may consist of four or five steps:

Step 1. Issue a verbal warning. Step 2. Issue a written warning. Step 3. Reprimand the employee. Step 4. Suspend the employee. Step 5. Terminate the employee.

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Disciplinary counseling is dependent on the nature of the misconduct. Depending on the rule violation, the employee's past work history, and attitude immediately after the event, the counseling process can unfold in four or five steps:

Step 1. Issue a verbal warning. The verbal warning is usually used when the misconduct is minor or it is the employee's first offense. It lets the employee know that you are aware of what he has done and that you expect him not to repeat the offense. Chronic tardiness or absenteeism may be included in the category of a minor offense or it may be treated as a performance issue, depending upon the corporate policy.

Step 2. Issue a written warning. If the verbal warning isn't heeded or the offense demands more than a verbal warning, then you might want to issue a written warning in memo form. A copy is given to the employee and one is placed in his or her personnel file.

Step 3. Reprimand the employee. Often, this action will be taken by the Human Resources Department. The message here should be clear to the employee: Another repeat of the incident, and the employee will be suspended or terminated, depending on the nature of the offense.

Step 4. Suspend the employee. This action is taken in the event of repeated misconduct or a serious offense. Sometimes the employee is paid while he is away from work, sometimes he is not—the nature of the situation often determines that. The employee is expected to use the time away from work to do some soul searching about his desire to stay with the firm and, as an integral part of that, his future conduct.

Step 5. Terminate the employee. If the problem still continues, then the employee is terminated.

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