An incomplete investigation into harassment allegations resulted in the wrong employee being terminated and costly litigation for the employer. A female EMT driver was the victim of unwanted sexual advances from a male dispatcher, and apparently brushed it off until he sent her a graphic text containing a photo of his genitals. She complained to her employer, was assured that the behavior was not tolerated, and was told that her allegations would be investigated. Meanwhile, the dispatcher discovered that the female EMT had reported him, so he falsified screenshots of elaborate text conversations and a “racy photo” to try to prove that she had initiated the exchange and was in fact the aggressor.
When the employer saw the screenshots of the falsified conversations and photo, they took them at face value and refused to consider any evidence offered by the female EMT. They terminated the female EMT for sexual harassment. The court noted that the harassment, the complaint, and the termination took place in the space of 24 hours. The court concluded that the employer’s investigation was negligent in not weighing the credibility of the dispatcher’s evidence or considering the potential that he was retaliating against the female EMT, and in refusing to consider or even look at the EMT’s evidence (Vasquez v. Empress Ambulance Service, Inc., 2nd Cir, Aug. 2016).
Tips: Audit your sexual harassment policy, complaint, and investigation procedure. Make sure that you’re taking the time and steps necessary to come to an objective – and defensible – conclusion about the validity of the allegations. A prompt investigation is necessary when any employee complains of harassment, but the investigation must always be thorough as well; rushing the process could lead to hasty decisions and damaging legal repercussions. Even if the evidence against an employee seems ironclad, employers should always listen to, evaluate and document both sides of the story.
Wrongful termination and job discrimination lawsuits can have damaging – and costly – repercussions. Be familiar with legal requirements enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and ensure that you’re practicing due diligence whenever issues of harassment or discrimination may be at play. For assistance in any situation where it’s one employee’s word against another’s, talk to your Vigilant employment attorney and review our Legal Guide, “Conducting an Internal Investigation.”