A Grievous Act–Part 2
"Mr. Sutton, Alma has always been the black sheep of the family. We're still trying to get out of debt for the bills she's run up on us. She stole my wife's driver's license and credit cards. Then she charged up a bunch of stuff and withdrew cash to support her cocaine habit. The woman can lie like a sailor. She's nothing but a thief and a junkie. Right now there's a warrant for her arrest for credit card fraud in Galveston."
"Do you have your mother-in-law's phone number?" Sam asked.
"Can't help you there. She's just moved to Topeka and has been staying with different friends until she gets settled," Holbrook said apologetically. "We only hear from her every two or three weeks, but I'll have her call you, if you'd like."
Sam thanked Holbrook, but wasn't satisfied. He had to find solid evidence to snare Alma before she returned to work. If Alma was really lying, he didn't want to drag this out. "Need to play detective . . . how can I verify the boyfriend's story?" Sam thought as he thumbed through his papers to prepare for his next appointment.
When Sam's eye fell on a vendor's business card, a broad smile crossed his face. "That's it! The printer!" he said aloud and jumped up to get the yellow pages from his bookshelf. "She must have hired a local printer to make up those phony prayer cards. Maybe we'll just get lucky . . . ."
Indeed, Sam's hunch played out. On the 14th call, he struck gold. "Yeah, we got an order from an Alma Florent about three weeks ago," the printer confirmed. He located the order and read the copy to Sam. "It said October 1, death of Mary Florent, survived by Alma Florent and Laura-Lynn Holbrook, interred October 5. Interment October 5, by the Gerasi Mortuary in Houston, Texas."
"Hot dog!" Sam thought. But he couldn't resist asking, "Didn't you think it was strange that she put in an order three weeks before her mother's death?"
"Yeah, we asked her about that," the printer said. "She told us her mother had been on a respirator for several weeks and that they planned to pull the plug on October 1 if there wasn't any improvement. She asked us to schedule the job, and she would call us if she needed the cards. As a matter of fact, we heard from her a few days ago, and she told us to run the job. Seemed to make sense to me, although I must say it was a first for us."
"Could you fax us a copy of the order as well as the prayer card?" Sam asked. "We need it for our records when we send flowers."
"Sure, no problem. I'll get it right to you," the printer responded.
Sam supplied the fax number and then called Houston information. "Could you give me the telephone number of Gerasi Mortuary?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, sir, but we have no number for that listing," the operator informed Sam.
"I knew it!" Sam grinned. But to really make sure, he called the public library and asked the librarian to check her sources for any mortuaries in Houston that sounded anything like "Gerasi." The research librarian found nothing close to the Gerasi name.
Sam informed Keith of the evidence and told him to box up Alma's personal belongings from her desk and have her report to human resources when she returned for work the following Monday. When Alma arrived in Sam's office, he told her he was aware that she had fabricated her mother's car accident and death.
Alma denied his allegations and said, "How could you be so cruel! I am still grieving. It took all my strength to come back to work today. This is nothing but mental harassment. You'll hear from my lawyer about this!" she charged.
Sam quickly doused Alma's fire when he produced photocopies of the printer's order for the prayer card and the evidence that no Gerasi Mortuary existed. Alma sat limply in her chair as he informed her that she was terminated for falsifying funeral leave. He handed her a box containing her personal belongings, informed her she would be escorted out, and buzzed his secretary.
Then a deputy from the Galveston sheriff's office walked in with a warrant in his hand. "Ms. Alma Florent?" he asked.
"Yes?" she said, still dazed over being caught in her bereavement scam.
"We have a warrant for your arrest in Galveston. You'll need to come with me," the deputy informed her.
Alma's world collapsed as the officer handcuffed her and discreetly escorted her through a side door. Sam saw them off and shook his head. Somehow, he never expected that his role as human resources manager would bring him so close to police work.
Sam must enjoy playing detective. Is his last name Spade, by any chance? On balance, Sam did a good job of handling this investigation. While it is easy to disregard anonymous callers, Sam very appropriately listened to details offered by the phone caller and verified the information. However, we think he was probably overzealous in some of his methods of inquiry, particularly his request for the printing company's records of Alma's order. Sam's actions could be considered as infringing on the employee's privacy. Nevertheless, we support his decision to terminate Alma based on falsification of bereavement leave.
A better use of Sam's time and resources might have been to use internal investigative services, if available, or to commission an external source to verify the situation. As a human resources manager, Sam should have focused on counseling Keith, Alma's boss, about dealing with the upcoming confrontation with her, rather than single-handedly resolving the situation. The idea here is to train managers to handle human resource matters of this type, rather than to do their work for them. With Sam's actions, it's not surprising that HR gets tagged as the "company cops!"
Sam's sense of civic duty apparently compelled him to inform the Galveston police about Alma's whereabouts. However, it was poor judgment to blend that initiative into Alma's termination for falsification. Sam could have contacted the Galveston police after her termination, thereby avoiding her workplace arrest.
Finally, once the decision was made to terminate Alma, Sam should have selected a more appropriate procedure for handling the removal of her personal belongings. Given Alma's propensity for falsification, it would more prudent to grant her the opportunity under supervision to remove her belongings rather than having Keith do so.
Human resources managers undoubtedly wear many hats. But just as human resources managers should avoid the risk of becoming an agent of the police (see, Deadbeat Dad), they should also resist the temptation to overplay the Sherlock Holmes/private investigator routine. Employers need to proceed with caution, being mindful of privacy rights of individuals, when investigating matters concerning employees.
While it turned out that Alma was lying, Alma's boyfriend may just have easily been lying when he reported Alma's scheme to Sam. Sam's actions aptly illustrate how an overzealous investigation can create a potential risk of liability for invasion of privacy when an employer, without authorization from the employee, begins calling individuals, making personal statements–possibly untrue statements–to those individuals. Similarly, human resources "investigators" may damage the reputation of persons they inquire about, and this may lead to libel or slander claims, for which both the manager and the employer may be liable.
Excerpted from Sex, Laws, & Stereotypes, by N. Elizabeth Fried, Ph.D.©