Imagine you receive an email from a customer stating that one of your employees engaged in serious misconduct. However, it’s not clear from the email whether the customer is merely disgruntled at your company’s service, or if your employee indeed engaged in wrongdoing. Your first instinct would be to open your investigation by asking the employee about the customer’s email. This is a good start, especially because the email is vague and lacks details, but you cannot end there. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently reminded employers that they often must go one step further by asking the complaining customer for more details, especially in cases where the allegations are vague or unclear. 

Imagine you receive an email from a customer stating that one of your employees engaged in serious misconduct. However, it’s not clear from the email whether the customer is merely disgruntled at your company’s service, or if your employee indeed engaged in wrongdoing. Your first instinct would be to open your investigation by asking the employee about the customer’s email. This is a good start, especially because the email is vague and lacks details, but you cannot end there. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently reminded employers that they often must go one step further by asking the complaining customer for more details, especially in cases where the allegations are vague or unclear.
In early June, the Supreme Court decided a case brought by a family who claims it was harassed by a RIPTA bus driver while the driver was on duty. The family wrote to RIPTA, expressing its concerns regarding the bus driver’s behavior on duty. The family claimed that RIPTA did not conduct a full and thorough investigation of their claims against the bus driver. The Supreme Court agreed, finding that RIPTA (like all employers in Rhode Island) must act with “reasonable care in conducting a full investigation” in cases involving alleged employee misconduct. This investigation should include obtaining additional information from any complaining witnesses, such as the family in this case.

This decision is important because it underscores how diligent employers must be when investigating employee misconduct. Employers cannot simply conduct an “in-house” investigation of misconduct. Often, employers must seek and obtain additional information from witnesses or complaining parties outside of the company. If they do not, their investigation will likely be deficient and they will be liable for not fulfilling their duty to the public and anyone harmed by an employee’s conduct.
If you have any questions about workplace investigations or employee misconduct, please contact PLDO Partner Brian J. Lamoureux at 401-824-5100 or [email protected] We welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.