Workplace scenarios - Disciplinary investigations

Employee Antics lead to Claims of Hostile Work Environment, Racial and Sexual Harassment and Potential Violence!

During Wednesday lunch, Amit, an A&E nurse, enters the hospital café for lunch. His colleagues greet him by calling him "Poppadom." Amit smirks, makes a few jokes of his own and proceeds to get his lunch.

Nisha, a new A&E nurse overhears the comments and is offended. Nisha frequently hears her colleagues, and even one of the surgeons, ribbing each other as well as some of the patients. The A&E nurse supervisor, Peter, hears the comments too but has not made any attempts to stop the remarks. When Nisha contacts him, he dismisses her concerns as trivial and suggests that she is overly sensitive to the "good-natured ribbing" in this high stress environment.

A few days later, when she arrives at work, Nisha finds racial slurs and threats on her voicemail, and in her lockers she discovers lurid photos with her face superimposed on the photos.

The following Monday there is an email message from Peter notifying her that she is being transferred to another shift. Extremely angry and concerned, Nisha decides to talk to Human Resources.


Key points to consider

  • At what point do ribbing and workplace pranks amount to a hostile work environment?
  • Does the supervisor's involuntary transfer of the employee amount to retaliation?
  • How will HR be able to convince colleagues and supervisors to co-operate in the investigation?
  • What action should be taken to protect the employee who has received anonymous verbal threats?

This case study and the case of Ramphal v Department of Transport is an important reminder that managers appointed to investigate disciplinary matters need to be provided with the skills to carry out their role effectively so that the outcome isn't unduly or wrongly influenced.

Manager Accused of Retaliating against a Staff Member who Suspects Him of Stealing!

As Alice Lee is walking out of the office late on Friday, she notices her supervisor Ted Blue loading several computer boxes into his car. Appearing frazzled and in a hurry, Ted quickly walks back into the building without acknowledging Alice. Alice shrugs her shoulders and drives home.

The next day Ted calls Alice into his office. He hands her a discipline notice and informs her that she is being given a written warning for tardiness that occurred three months earlier. Alice has a history of chronic absenteeism and tardiness, but Ted often accepts her excuses. Alice refuses to sign the form and leaves his office visibly upset.

A few weeks later, Alice is called into Ted's office again. This time Alice receives a disciplinary notice for taking too much time at lunch, although she was out celebrating a colleague's promotion with other members of the department none of whom was disciplined. In frustration, Alice goes to the HR Manager, Jenny Jury and tells her that she thinks Ted is trying to get rid of her because of what she saw on Friday afternoon. She reports the details of what has occurred over the last several weeks. Alice is adamant that she wants Jenny to keep the conversation confidential.


Key points to consider

  • What information do you need in order to determine whether there has been a theft of company property? How should this aspect of the investigation proceed? At what point do you need to bring in law enforcement?
  • How far can your search go without violating the supervisor's privacy rights? Do your policies and practices address these issues?
  • Do the supervisor's written warnings amount to retaliatory conduct or are they legitimate disciplinary actions?
  • How would you resolve the dispute between the supervisor and the employee?

Training: Are you responsible for conducting investigations?

Acas has designed an interactive one-day event for professionals who have responsibility for conducting internal investigations.

The event focuses on critical strategies to unravel the most complex issues you confront in your workplace, complete with twists and turns and legal snares. By attending this event you will enhance your ability to interview hostile or reluctant witnesses, practice analysing documentary evidence, and ensure your reports will stand up in court.

View a list of upcoming Investigations training events