When complaints are made – don’t rush to judgment – investigate

September 18, 2022

When a complaint is made, employers should not rush to judgment or immediately determine someone is guilty as alleged. Instead, employers need to conduct an independent and objective investigation. And everyone deserves fairness in the process.

Recently, a Black Duke volleyball player alleged that she was called racial slurs by a Brigham Young University fan during a game played at BYU.

The Duke player posted a statement stating, in part, “[M]y fellow African-American teammates and I were targeted and racially heckled throughout the entirety of the match. The slurs and comments grew into threats, which caused us to feel unsafe.”

The player’s godmother, who is campaigning for a circuit court position in Texas, reportedly posted that her goddaughter was called the n-word every time she served and was threatened by a white male.

Several media outlets reported the story as “fact” — that she had indeed been called a racial slur. BYU immediately issued an apology and banned the fan (not a BYU student) accused of this behavior.

South Carolina’s volleyball coach Dawn Staley canceled her team’s subsequent game against BYU stating she didn’t want her team to be subjected to that same abuse.

BYU then conducted its own investigation. It interviewed more than 50 people who attended the event, including players, staff from both Duke and BYU, security personnel, management, and attendees seated in or near the section where the alleged slurs were heard. The investigator reviewed audio and video footage. BYU concluded there was no evidence that the racial slurs occurred.

It issued a statement, “From our extensive review, we have not found any evidence to corroborate the allegation that fans engaged in racial heckling or uttered racial slurs at the event. As we stated earlier, we would not tolerate any conduct that would make a student feel unsafe.”

BYU removed the ban from the fan accused of making the racial slurs.

The godmother posting about the slurs was not at the game and her post is no longer public.

One of the player’s teammates reported she didn’t hear the slurs.

Duke University’s vice president and director of athletics responded to the findings, stating, “The 18 members of the Duke University volleyball team are exceptionally strong women who represent themselves, their families, and Duke University with the utmost integrity.” She said, “We unequivocally stand with and champion them, especially when their character is called into question. Duke Athletics believes in respect, equality and inclusiveness, and we do not tolerate hate and bias.”

The situation may have been a misunderstanding about the fan’s use of the word “net.” Misunderstandings happen — which again is why there should be an independent investigation and not a rush to judgment.

Organizations should encourage the reporting of misconduct by any employee toward anyone and by anyone towards employees. Those reporting misconduct should be treated with fairness and respect, and not retaliated against.

Upon receipt, the organization should determine if there is justification to temporarily place the accused employee on paid administrative leave pending the investigation. This isn’t always the case — it depends on the allegations.

The person selected to conduct the investigation needs to be unbiased and trained to conduct investigations. Investigators are frequently accused of being biased, unqualified, or that their investigations were inadequate. The person conducting the investigation should be able to overcome these accusations and be free from influence by management.

The investigator should conduct an objective and thorough investigation and render findings. The goal is finding the truth — whatever that is. Simply because someone denies the allegations, or there isn’t a video or audio recording, should not render the investigation inconclusive. It is the role of the investigator to assess the credibility of the witnesses, and the information reviewed, to render findings one way or the other.

The investigator should make reasoned conclusions supported by substantial evidence gathered through the investigation.

The findings should be documented in some format — either a written report or summary. The employer then should take action based on those findings if the investigator determines misconduct occurred.

Third party independent investigations can be costly, but organizations cannot afford to avoid or ignore complaints, nor can they justify taking action against an employee based on accusations alone.