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Internal investigation highlighted in a discrimination case

In 2014, an age discrimination case resulted in a multimillion-dollar award for a former IBM executive.

At the heart of the matter was the internal investigation that IBM human resources personnel launched and that the judge in the case roundly criticized.

What happened

A Connecticut jury found that the company had wrongfully terminated the former IBM vice president due to his age. The court awarded the 61-year-old $4.1 million, and the U.S. Magistrate judge criticized IBM for the way HR personnel handled his complaint prior to the termination. The HR investigator concluded that the former VP had received fair treatment. However, the judge called his report “one-sided,” saying it did not include evidence that was favorable to the plaintiff, such as his performance reviews. The judge went on to say he suspected that the handling of the investigation leaned more toward exonerating IBM than on determining whether the company had treated its former VP fairly.

Common investigation errors

A company should have well-defined methods to investigate employee claims so that they can avoid the following mistakes:

  • Ignoring complaints
  • Delaying an investigation
  • Becoming distracted during the interview process
  • Using interview tactics that are too aggressive
  • Losing objectivity
  • Failing to reach a conclusion
  • Failing to write a report
  • Failing to follow up with the people involved

The importance of confidentiality

Companies must comply with both state and federal privacy and confidentiality laws. For example, those in charge of an investigation must protect the identity of the witnesses they interview and keep records of their investigation methods. The issues that affect employees, such as age discrimination or sexual harassment, are sensitive, and a company must be sure that it follows employment laws faithfully and protects its employees during the course of an investigation.

The well-run investigation

Handling an internal investigation improperly can become very expensive for a company and can easily damage its reputation. However, an investigation that is prompt, thorough and above all impartial, will be the basis for a good defense if a lawsuit should develop following a claim such as age discrimination as brought by the former IBM executive.

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