As our office employs two experienced workplace investigators, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that we believe a thorough neutral investigation is crucial for any employer looking to have a serious disciplinary action upheld. Even with what appears to be a solid investigation, if an arbitrator disagrees with an investigator’s interpretation of events, it can be damning to your case. In the arbitration between the Minnesota Department of Corrections and Nathan Knutson, arbitrator Richard Beens took issue with several findings by the investigator assigned to look into allegations of ethical misconduct by the grievant.
After the grievant was demoted from an administrative position within the Department of Corrections, he was immediately placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation, based on unrelated discoveries from the investigation that led to the grievant’s demotion.
The new investigation found the grievant to have committed four separate acts of misconduct, including the grievant having a conflict of interest, breached ethical standards by soliciting benefits from a vendor, used his position of authority to secure benefits not available to the public, and interfered with the investigation.
Regarding the allegations of soliciting benefits from a vendor, the grievant was found by the investigator to have made two inappropriate requests for benefits when he sent two text messages to the vendor. The first came after he was provided a free beverage with rail alcohol by the vendor, and responded to the vendor, “No Crown Royal??” The second was when the grievant messaged the vendor, “Haha. You got it in you to take those chicks out to a very nice dinner”? The grievant never received either the higher-end drink or the dinner from the vendor, but the investigator and the employer found those messages to be improper requests for benefits. The arbitrator found that, contrary to the investigator’s determinations, those communications were instances of the grievant giving his friend, the vendor, a “hard time,” and not actual requests for benefits.
Regarding the requests for additional benefits not available to the public, the employer alleged that the grievant requested two mousepads from MNCOR, the DOC’s manufacturing section. The arbitrator found that the mousepads cost between $0.32 and $0.37 to make, and no DOC managers had ever paid for personalized mousepads before. The arbitrator then found that while the grievant made other requests for items from MNCOR, the costs of the items were minimal, and several of the requests were not honored.
In short, the arbitrator’s analysis of the events involving the grievant completely conflicted with the findings of the investigator. Other than the allegation that the grievant improperly contacted co-workers following his placement on administrative leave pending investigation, the arbitrator had a totally different interpretation of the actions taken by the grievant. Where the investigator and employer believe the grievant was engaged in nefarious conduct, the arbitrator found innocuous actions that had no impact on the grievant’s ability to do his job.
This case is somewhat troubling as the arbitrator made his own factual findings based off of the evidence presented at the hearing, rather than relying on the findings of the investigation. As a result, the arbitrator returned the grievant to his position, minus a one-month suspension for interference with the investigation of his misconduct.
As stated earlier, an investigation can either make or break an employer’s efforts to discipline its employees. While many arbitrators will rely on the findings of a neutral investigator, seeing them as an unbiased third party, other arbitrators will be incredibly critical of the investigator and the investigator’s methods in coming to a conclusion. If you, or your organization, need assistance in investigating possible instances of employee misconduct, contact the Wiley Law Office, for neutral investigations that work.