Workplace Investigations

Earlier this year, the Obama Administration was heavily criticized for its rush to judgment against Shirley Sherrod, the then-Secretary of Agriculture.  After allegations of racist remarks at an NAACP meeting in Georgia, the Administration demanded her immediate resignation.  Only problem — the video showing the alleged racist statements had been edited.  If only the decisionmakers had paused, took a breath, and put in motion an investigation before pulling the trigger.  This knee-jerk reaction by employers in the wake of allegations of wrongdoing is not uncommon.  But, a recent case out of the Third Circuit exemplifies just how the right amount of patience and dedication to conducting a full and fair investigation can lead to an employer victory in court. 

University of Pittsburgh.jpgIn Wood v. University of Pittsburgh (PDF), Deborah Wood was employed as a systems analyst in the University of Pittsburgh’s National Surgical Adjuvant Breast & Bowel Project Biostatistical Center.  Ms. Wood was the only female employee and the only African American employee out of the 6 employees in her group.  After she was laid off as part of a reduction in force, she sued for gender discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation, based not only on the loss of her job, but also her belief that she was being targeted in the workplace due to her race and gender.  Her allegations are somewhat unbelievable – Ms. Wood claimed that someone was tampering with her computer (icons were removed, she “lost control” of her mouse and keyboard, the number “666” appeared “thousands of times,” etc.) and her office had been broken into over and over again.  Still, each time she complained, the University took her complaints seriously and investigated.  Over a 2 year period, the University:

  • Put a lock on her office;
  • Purchased and installed software to monitor her computer;
  • Reviewed computer logs;
  • Provided her with a new computer;
  • Conducted a forensic inspection of her computer; and
  • Had the university police investigate.

At the end of the day, no evidence of inappropriate or unlawful activity was unearthed and Ms. Wood was eventually terminated as part of a RIF.  On appeal, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the University, stating that the “University employees went to extraordinary lengths of investigate Wood’s tampering allegations and there is simply no evidence to suggest that any aspect of their inquiry was influenced by [unlawful] bias.” 

Unfortunately, too often employers either rush to call foul on the complaining employee or, as in the case of Sherrod, take immediate adverse action against the accused wrongdoer without having all the facts.  The University of Pittsburgh could have easily disregarded Ms. Wood’s complaints as incredulous, but it took allegations of wrongdoing in the workplace seriously and exemplified extreme patience through many investigative steps.  This case is a good example of how not to rush to judgment, and how patience and a full and fair investigation can prevail in the end.