This blog post is part of our “Day In the Life” series offered this summer
I consider myself very lucky in that I began my career in HR getting a pretty cool gig. I was to be 1 of 4 Consultants in a high-profile organization, and was the youngest by at least 25-30 years. No really it was like that. Of course being the energetic young buck I was I wanted to dive into every single aspect of HR I could possibly get my hands on. What did I do? I volunteered for every imaginable project, new initiative and personal development opportunity. As cool as my job was, there were some things that I would describe as ummmm… downright icky.
A few months in, I was handed an employee file that was literally 15 inches thick. Not sure what it was initially, all I remember was thinking, “what on earth is going on here… this couldn’t possibly be my employee file, I’ve only been here a couple of months”!!!
It turns out I was being asked to investigate a difficult case involving a long-service employee and his alleged inappropriate use of his computer at work. Oooookaaaayy!
In fact, this alleged misuse was for a period of at least 5 years, and it was related to the viewing, storing and sharing of pornography. The interesting thing about this situation was that the hard drive on this employees’ computer had been upgraded a couple of times during the 5 years. Geez I wonder why!!??
What was my role? I was going to be doing the investigation—evaluating the evidence, writing the report and making a recommendation to a senior official on behalf of the organization. Fannnntastic…. here I was a 22-year-old kid soon to be conducting an investigation relating to pornography in the workplace.
After the 20-minute meeting with my boss I took the file and walked down the hallway back to my office. I distinctly remember that walk—think of a movie where the action gets slowed down to a crawl. That’s exactly how I felt.
So, what could have been my first task? Yes… look at the contents of the file. Just great! I get to look at porn and everything related to porn while at work. Life was just grand wasn’t it? The only thing I will say about what was in that file was nothing was left behind. Enough said… let’s move on!
I eventually performed the investigation with the employee, his manager and the IT person who upgraded his hard drive on several occasions. Do I really need to say what my recommendation was? In the spirit of true confidentiality I am not going to say it, but you can guess (if you know me) what I recommended. I completed my report and presented it, along with my recommendation. It was accepted by the senior executive and legal counsel. We proceeded with the inevitable.
The good news in all of this is I did not have to conduct the termination; my boss took that one of my hands, and, I avoided shaking this employees’ hand throughout the process.
For employers, this is a “what not to do” story. Having a new HR graduate investigate serious years-long allegations against a long-serving employee renders the employer vulnerable to expensive legal liability in any subsequent lawsuit. If the employer does not have the necessary expertise in-house, or if no qualified person in the company is available to conduct the investigation, the employer should seek outside professional help. The short-sighted attempt to save a few dollars by having a new junior HR hire perform complex work beyond his training and experience easily leads to costly expenses down the road.
In general, while viewing pornography in the workplace is serious misconduct, termination is not the most appropriate penalty in every case. It is in some circumstances but not others. Also, given that open mindedness and lack of prejudice are essential characteristics of properly-done investigations, I would suggest that phrases such as “you can guess (if you know me) what I recommended” have no place in the vocabulary of professional, well-trained and experienced HR investigators.
Keep in mind this is a blog post, not a verbatim accounting of the events. There is language used in this post that is there for entertainment value. I could have written a book on this case because it was that involved. I was fully supported and coached by a senior HR colleague so we had our bases covered. Besides I handled this case just fine thank you very much. 🙂 🙂