January 3, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver
“Dennis, spend a day in the shoes of a high school human relations manager and you’ll be amazed at the immaturity and outright deception shown, not by students, but the teachers. Given the bickering, pettiness, unbelievable lack of common sense and at times harassing behavior found in so many high schools, you have to wonder what the kids are learning.”
“But it’s not just the teachers who lack common sense, as far too often clueless HR people become unwitting co-conspirators of a manipulative, dishonest employee with an agenda and a plan to make a colleague’s life miserable.”
Those were comments from the human resources manager at a California high school district who You and the Law consulted for this story with the understanding that neither his location nor name would be revealed.
I’ll have one lamb and a shepherd boy, rare, please.”
As we all remember, “The boy who cried wolf” is one of Aesop’s Fables standing for the proposition that even when liars tell the truth, they are not believed.
In the fable, a shepherd boy tricks villagers into thinking that a wolf is attacking his flock by yelling Wolf! Wolf! Of course, all run to help, finding no wolf, only a boy laughing at the sight of everyone racing to his aid.
However, after repeating the same not-so-practical joke one time too many, when a real wolf appears, his screams are ignored, the boy and a sheep becoming dinner for the wolf.
He is obsessed with you
“Like the fable, common sense and experience, should lead management to conclude that repeated, unproven complaints from one employee about another means that the person doing the complaining is the problem.
“But when you keep on investigating a person shown to have done nothing wrong, then you are just begging to be sued,” he stressed.
In December of 2014, You and the Law observed — dumbfounded — as HR staff from a Southern California high school district grabbed a shovel and began digging a hole for itself by tossing common sense out the window in a matter which began in late 2011 and could have been titled: You’ll Be Sorry, signed Kerry.
His repeated advances ignored by “William,” between from 2011 to 2013, “Kerry” filed three virtually identical claims of “harassment,” all of which were found “completely unsubstantiated” after HR investigated.
After being warned by his principal, “Kerry has an obsession with you,” William asked for and received a transfer to a different high school, but that did not prevent a fourth complaint. Instead of refusing to put an innocent teacher through more grief, HR, once again, began an investigation.
How much trouble can the employer get into?
“An employer should never let itself become the alter ego of an employee who has an issue with a co-worker. This HR department doesn’t get the message: they hear Wolf and keep on responding,” commented Bakersfield Labor Law attorney Jay Rosenlieb.
“Employers have a duty to investigate credible complaints. If they fail, this becomes a violation of their obligations to their employees. However, by continuing to investigate claims that clearly have no basis, then they have liability to innocent employees.
“Here, the credibility of the school’s HR department is called into question. By continuing to accept and investigate these complaints, when they have reason to doubt their validity, they fail to ask the question “Who is the bad guy?”
“Certainly after the second unsubstantiated claim, the district is looking more and more like a dunce, if not a co-conspirator,” Rosenlieb points out.
“The more they investigate and find nothing, the innocent teacher now acquires the basis to file a workers compensation stress claim. Obviously, anyone going through what he did will suffer greatly,” he underscores.
“The subject of the investigation has already had his career path unnecessarily altered by transferring to another school.”
Advice to employers
“When investigating complaint by one employee against another, employers have a legal duty to ask, ‘Do they have an ax to grind?’ This is basic to the investigative process.
“Failing that, the employer runs the risk of not conducting a full and complete inquiry and becoming a tool in a private dispute.
“Employers must always be alert to credibility issues and ulterior motives when accepting complaints. To do otherwise will expose the employer to liability and could harm an otherwise upstanding and productive employee,” Rosenlieb concluded.
To that, we add the following food for thought:
The most valuable asset of any employer are its people: strong, engaged, productive — who want to be there.
Give them a reason to doubt your credibility, and forever you’ll be hiring new employees at great cost.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.