The botched firing by the White House last September of a Department of Agriculture employee for making alleged improper racial remarks — later shown to be incorrect — seriously embarrassed the administration and damaged its credibility. It is a prime example of taking precipitous action before having the facts.
That case serves as an object lesson for those of us working in both the private and public sectors. We must be extremely careful before acting against an employee against whom allegations are made. You must get all the facts, and, unless something potentially criminal had occurred, don’t act against the employee until the facts are in. In several assignments of mine, allegations have been made of improper or criminal behavior against people who worked in my organizations. The way I handled two cases that I describe below was the same, the outcomes different.
Case History — Sexual Harassment Claim
In one case, while heading an international division of a Fortune 100 company and based in England, I learned that our Japan country manager had been charged with sexual harassment. A woman coworker complained to human resources that this man had promised her a raise and better position in exchange of sexual favors and then had attempted to kiss her against her wishes. Regional management raised the alarm, “Suspend the man,” “Remove him from his position.”
To give you the whole picture, this man was not popular. He was autocratic, a former Japanese army officer and someone who did not respond well to direction from the US mother company. People were lined up to dump him. But his results were excellent, and there had never been any prior complaints.
I directed the corporate auditors and our staff counsel in Tokyo to run a full inquiry. This took several weeks as we wanted to interview all parties, any witnesses and review both their records. We also sought any other instances which might not have been reported
The comprehensive inquiry provided the truth. The complainant had received poor performance reports not only from the country manager but from other bosses. If she did not improve at the next rating, she would have to resign. Finally, she confessed to the auditors that she had made up the story hoping to keep her job. She was fired. The country manager was exonerated and continued in his successful yet autocratic fashion.
Case History — Accounts Payable Fraud
The second case occurred after I had taken over the administrative functions for the corporate headquarters in Philadelphia of this same firm. As I always did when taking a new management job, I ordered an audit of all functions. To my surprise, the auditors found serious discrepancies in the corporation’s accounts payable group, with a staff of four professionals and numerous clerks.
Because millions of dollars were disbursed by this group every week, we put the clerks under scrutiny and the professionals on paid administrative leave. After a comprehensive investigation using the auditors and members of the company’s financial and legal groups, it became apparent that one of the professionals – a junior manager — had probably committed a crime. The other three had closed their eyes to what had taken place or just had fallen asleep on the job.
After review with our corporate general counsel and company chairman, we called the authorities. Soon thereafter, the man under suspicion was arrested. He and his girlfriend had perfected a scheme where she — not an employee —submitted phony vouchers, on different company letterheads, with various addresses. This man paid the vouchers. The checks and balances procedures within the group which should have picked up the fraud, had been ignored. The man and his girlfriend went to prison. The other three employees were fired.
There are lessons here. First, order an audit when you take over an operation. Second, be sure of your facts before you exonerate or act against an employee. Third, get your auditors and attorneys involved early on; and, finally, keep your president or chairman informed.