I've got a saying in the employee relations side of the HR game - "allegations are free". They don't cost anything, and someone can say pretty much anything they want about someone else. That's one of the things that's a little screwed up in America now. We've got free speech (nice!!), but we rarely punish those who are engaged in slander or other fancy words related to talking about someone else in ways that are untruthful.
So what do you do when someone makes a crazy allegation about a fine, upstanding citizen? In the workplace, the HR pro is brought in for a game I like to call "find out the truth", or "who's lying". The game is otherwise known as the
Here's how it works - Employee A makes an outlandish allegation about Employee B ("he touched me"), and the call goes into HR. The HR pro parachutes into the location and usually starts by interviewing the person who's making the allegation. After interviewing that person, the HR pro will make an interview list and interview everyone who was involved - directly as well as those who were potential witnesses. She'll also look for records, digital footprints, etc. - anything that can prove the location of people at specific times, etc.
The good HR pro can take that information, do a bunch of interviews and break down the situation and get as close to the truth as possible. At that point, decisions get made regarding whether someone's going to get fired, how we're going to respond to the person making the allegations, etc.
For example, consider the allegations made against Al Gore by a Portland area massage therapist. Here's a simple report of the allegations (which are free - did I mention that?):
"An Oregon masseuse filed a complaint last year accusing Al Gore of sexual abuse following a nearly three-hour massage session at an upscale Portland hotel in 2006, reports the Portland Oregonian.
The alleged incident took place at the Hotel Lucia Oct. 24, after the masseuse, 54, was called by the hotel to administer a late night massage to a "VIP" client, who was later identified as Gore, 62, the former U.S. Vice President, senator from Tennessee and Nobel Prize-winning advocate for the environment."
I have no clue on the true facts of this case. I'm inclined to believe Al Gore before I believe the backrubber. Call me crazy, former VP's get that nod from me.
However, I'm a career HR pro. If I had to investigate it and determined initially that Al was denying anything happened, I'd look for a paper trail that the backrubber actually got dispatched to Gore's room. Then I'd break down the following three questions before I even asked Al about the abuse allegations:
1. "Did you get a massage in your room on the night in question?"
2. "When you got the massage, were you alone in your room with the massage therapist who's making the allegation?"
3. "Did the massage last nearly three hours"
Here's what you get out of that line of questioning. Question #1, I'm simply looking to establish the fact that a massage did occur. Most people are going to be truthful on that point. Question #2 establishes the scene that leads to a "he said, she said" situation, but also leads to a follow-up question along the lines of "with all your experience in the public arena, surely you've been coached that it's a bad idea for you to be alone in a silk robe with someone you don't know of the opposite sex in your hotel room". Question #3 is an establishment of fact that leads to a "Tell me what you do in a 3 hour massage, because I've never been involved with that. Isn't that longer than average by about, say, 2+ hours?
PS - you don't ask any follow-up questions until you move through the entire slate of questions #1-#3 above. In a real investigation, I'd run through a list of 10-20 questions that I scripted before I'd do any follow-ups. Follow-ups tip people off on the direction you're heading. The whole line of questioning in any employee relations interview is designed to establish facts, narrow wiggle room and probably most importantly, allow you to pose follow-up questions on judgment that might be important when it's all "he said, she said" and you're trying to figure out what you're going to do after the investigation is complete.
A good HR pro can get to the truth. Even if they have to break down people like Al Gore in the interview room.