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How You Investigate Wrongdoing Can Determine Your Risk

Written exclusively for ChubbWorks for Health Care Zone

A California jury found that a university medical center employer engaged in religious discrimination and awarded the plaintiff more than three million dollars in damages.

According to the allegations in the case, the former warehouse employee worked for the medical center for 10 years without incident. After the employee converted to Islam, he began to experience harassment from his supervisors. The harassment increased when the plaintiff broke his thumb and was placed on light duty until it fully healed.

The plaintiff alleged the supervisors repeatedly used derogatory names, called the plaintiff a terrorist, and frequently suggested he quit. They also began assigning him additional duties, which he described as an "unreasonable and unfair workload." The employee complained to the human resource department, who, after a brief inquiry, informed the employee that nothing could be done.

The following year, the employer suspended the employee and eventually terminated him, stating a coworker had accused him of making a "terrorist threat". The employee denied the accusation. Scott Schwebke "Fired Muslim awarded $3.2 million in discrimination suit against Loma Linda University Medical Center" (Nov. 07, 2018).

Commentary and Checklist

Even though the employee’s termination in this case came one year after his initial complaint of religion-based discrimination and harassment to human resource personnel, the employer’s inadequate response to that complaint, along with a seemingly “thin” basis for his termination, led to a jury finding for the plaintiff and the multi-million dollar damage award.

This case clearly illustrates how a failure to take complaints seriously and subject them to a thorough investigation can lead to costly litigation and significant damage awards.

Employers must, of course, have anti-discrimination policies and training for all employees, but a policy is only as successful as its enforcement. This requires a prompt and thorough response to every complaint.

Developing detailed procedures for investigating employee complaints is a best practice. Here are some investigation tips for employers to consider:

  • Don't delay the investigation;
  • It should proceed as quickly as possible, without ignoring witnesses or documentary evidence;
  • Only facts should be determined. Conclusions based on those facts are not for the investigator, but for others to decide;
  • Never allow personal opinion or bias to influence the investigation;
  • Document the investigation and any actions taken;
  • Protect those involved in the investigation from retaliation; and
  • Follow up to make sure there is no retaliation.
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