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Lynne Curry: A company may have no choice but to investigate

Q: I've worked for my company for 15 years and have made millions of dollars for my company. Senior managers who've formerly told me they know my word is my bond are now letting my reputation be smeared.

Three months ago, we needed a few hires in my department. A new-to-the-company Human Resources assistant made two hires. Both were problematic. One has since left and been replaced by a transfer into my department from a guy who's been with the company for two years.

The second hire, a gal, is also a problem. She lacks basic experience and thinks back talk is acceptable. I spoke to the HR manager about her, said I couldn't use her and she needed to be fired. The HR assistant who'd hired the gal had taken a shine to her. I've since learned they're lunch buddies, and talked the HR manager into giving the gal another chance.

Last week this new hire accused me of discriminating against her by awarding allegedly plum assignments to her male peers, all three of whom have been with the company longer than she has. The lawsuit-fearful Human Resources department launched an investigation.

They're interviewing half the company and damaging my reputation. I've heard from two individuals who've been interviewed that they were asked if I "came on" to women in the company. I asked the HR manager why anyone would be asked these questions, and he said the new gal said I stroked her arms and shoulders in a sexually threatening manner.

I don't believe this. I'm happily married, have absolutely no interest in this gal and can't believe that no one in senior management has put a stop to this.

Do I need my own attorney?

A. Yes. Your employer's attorney protects the company's interests, which may or may not coincide with your own.

If you've done nothing wrong, a well-done investigation works in your favor. Often, inexperienced individuals not given choice assignments blame manager bias rather than their own skill set. Those making accusations occasionally expand their allegations to add velocity to an investigation.

Once you're accused of discrimination or harassment, it handicaps your and your company's ability to discipline or terminate this new hire. If you do so at this point, she could accuse you or your company of retaliation, a claim easier to prove than discrimination or harassment.

Your senior management thus had no choice. Ignoring a discrimination charge leaves a company and the named manager at risk of losing a lawsuit -- even one based on a fraudulent charge of discrimination or harassment.

If the investigator concludes you made reasonable choices when handing out assignments and haven't made inappropriate advances toward this employee, you and your company can handle the new hire's situation with appropriate action. If she's truly a poor fit for the job, she can be moved out of your department or potentially even be fired.

If you've done absolutely nothing wrong and your company hired a credible investigator, you may choose to "go it alone" without an attorney. If you do so, tell the investigator the absolute truth, even if you've made minor mistakes such as moving your new hire aside for her safety or because she was in the way but in a manner that created unintended body contact. When accused individuals deny everything, even mistakes they've made, they lose credibility with the investigator.

If you've done nothing and tell the truth to the investigator, the investigator can then size up the situation for what it may be, a manager given a weak hire who perceived bias and exaggerated to get back at the manager.

Finally, your situation underlies the importance of supervisors and Human Resources working together on new hires -- out of fairness to the supervisor, to the company and to those hired.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management and employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com. You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through workplacecoachblog.com.