Investigation of Employee Claims
There are certain types of complaints reported internally by employees to their employers that require special attention. In particular, employee complaints pertaining to unlawful harassment and discrimination or retaliation in the workplace or employee complaints pertaining to wage & hour related matters (such as overtime) may require that employers take certain steps in addressing the employee's complaint to minimize their legal exposure. Once an internal complaint has been received, employers should, therefore, meaningfully consider retaining legal counsel to conduct an internal investigation of the complaint.
By way of example, California expressly requires that employers take immediate and appropriate corrective and investigative action into complaints of sexual harassment. The investigation must be launched not only when a formal complaint has been received, but also when the employer has some reason to believe that improper conduct may be occurring in the workplace. The investigation of a sexual harassment complaint brought by a current employee must be neutral and unbiased.
If an employer fails to comply with the applicable legal requirements, it may expose itself to substantial liability. However, the appropriate handling of such a complaint may serve to minimize liability for an employer, especially with respect to punitive damages. (Punitive damages in these types of lawsuits are largely dependent upon how well an employer addresses the complaint.)
Meeting the applicable legal requirements may be difficult for certain employers — particularly when the employer lacks an adequate Human Resources department with the proper training. Regardless, employers are advised to consider retaining legal counsel to conduct their internal investigations in order to ensure that the investigation remains neutral and unbiased, and that the proper interviews and adequate documentation are carried out.