Diversity & Inclusion, HR Management & Compliance

Workplace Investigations: Leveraging the ‘Honest-Belief Rule’

Conducting investigations of disputed workplace events is a routine responsibility for HR leaders. Faced with disputed facts, employers can make reasonable fact determinations based on a diligent probe and still obtain summary dismissal of a discrimination claim. A recent decision from the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals confirms how employers can best ensure the results of their investigations are respected and upheld.

Facts

A supervisor was terminated for combative behavior and profane language aimed at a direct report who failed to complete a task assigned to him. During the investigation, the employee who was yelled at neither confirmed nor denied the allegations but instead was dismissive of them. The supervisor completely denied the incident occurred and claimed he would never use profanity with a subordinate coworker.

In separate interviews, however, three uninvolved bystander witnesses provided consistent accounts of what transpired. Each confirmed the supervisor had yelled at his team member in a combative manner using profanity.

6th Circuit’s Decision

The 6th Circuit upheld the trial court’s summary dismissal of the 66-year-old supervisor’s age discrimination claim based on the investigation’s results. The court relied on the “honest belief rule” to rebut the supervisor’s statement that the alleged reason for ending his employment had no basis in fact. Instead, the court concluded the employer had made a reasonably informed and considered decision before electing to end the individual’s employment, including providing him with an opportunity to produce proof to the contrary.

Based on the investigation, the HR leader and the manager involved concluded the supervisor was downplaying the incident and decided the account of the three uninvolved witnesses was more credible and explained why. The record supported the employer’s honest belief. Rafee v. Volvo Group North America, LLC, Case No. 21-5891 (June 3, 2022).

Bottom Line

Here are four key takeaways from this decision for HR leaders conducting investigations with conflicting evidence:

  • Make sure your investigation is “reasonably informed and considered.”
  • Interview all witnesses and consider all evidence, and don’t leave obvious gaps in collecting the facts.
  • Always provide the employee with an opportunity to respond to what you have learned from your investigation before making the decision to take corrective action or discharge him.
  • Explain in a short but detailed investigation report the facts you determined and how you made credibility decisions and the reasonable basis for them. Many investigation reports don’t include the analysis. They often simply summarize the witness interviews and don’t explain the rationale for their conclusions in a way that has standalone meaning.

If the factual determinations are based on a sufficiently diligent probe and analysis, as the 6th Circuit concluded, then the fact that “the plaintiff or the court might come to a different conclusion if they had conducted the investigation is immaterial.”

Donald P. Lawless is an employment attorney with Barnes & Thornburg LLP. You can reach him at dlawless@btlaw.com.