Question:

My wife and I run a small business. We’ve recently had a lot of turnover. We’ve been able to handle it by giving our best performers raises and bonuses and dividing some of the extra work among them. We’ve also hired a few new employees.

We suspect that one of our new hires, our office manager, is causing problems.

Here’s the background—When I arrived at my office this morning, I found a sealed envelope with my name printed on it in block letters. Inside was an anonymous note informing me our sales manager had an illicit affair with the accounts receivable clerk who quit last week.

I don’t believe it. Our sales manager is married. My wife and I socialize with him and his wife. The head of accounting received a similar note and brought it to me. I told her to toss it in the trash.

Then our newly hired office manager said she’d received a note as well. She also mentioned she’d heard rumors about the sales manager and another individual who left our company last year.

She insists we need to do something. Do we? I suspect her of creating these notes. She doesn’t like the sales manager.

Answer:

Many individuals toss anonymous mailings into the trash. Don’t.

Someone felt strongly enough about the situation to write three notes. You don’t know that person’s motivation. Was it revenge? The truth?

You need to investigate. If you don’t, you leave a potential smoking gun aimed at both your company and the sales manager. Enough “buzz” now exists that any current or future employee can make a founded or unfounded allegation against the sales manager.

If that happens, and a regulatory body or jury rules that sexual harassment occurred, your company faces greater liability. You’ll be interviewed and asked, “were given information letting you know you had a problem?” You’ll have to say you were.  

You’ll be asked, “Did you take it seriously? Did you investigate?” You’ll have to say you didn’t investigate.

The investigation protects both your company and the sales manager. If a neutral investigator deems the rumors unfounded, you unload the gun.

You can investigate this situation by interviewing the sales manager, your former accounts receivable clerk and other employees who’ve recently you’re your company. In the process, you may learn useful information concerning what’s inspired the recent turnover. You can also ask your new office manager to reveal who passed rumors on to her. If she can’t name anyone, she may have created a false story.   

Although you don’t believe this allegation, good people occasionally transgress. If that proves true in this case, your sales manager needs to realize his secret is out. You then need to act on what you learn. You may need to fire him or suspend him without pay. He may be a friend, but he’s shown poor judgment and exposed your company to great risk.

Alternatively, if your suspicions that your new office manager wrote the notes prove true, you need to bless her out the door. At the same time, your investigation may reveal that her counsel to “do something” saved you worse future problems and you’ve unfairly judged her.

If you call me, I can give you the name and phone number of an excellent investigator.

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2 thoughts on “Smoking Gun: can I ignore it?

  1. These are creative and workable suggestions on how to deal with anonymous complaints of founded or unfounded rumors. Your advice to investigate the complaints seems quite wise, bot for giving the employer greater freedom going forward and for a good way to deal with complaints. I’m not sure I understood why the company should feel obligated or that it has the right to fire someone for having an affair–this seems to open the company for feeling justified in putting its nose into workers’ everyday actions, and seems potentially intrusive. If there is a policy, however, against workplace dating/affairs. the company has sound footing for such an action.

  2. Great comment.
    One note: because supervisors/managers have higher status than the employees under them, it’s unwise/poor judgment for them to have affairs with employees of lower status, who can feel (or allege) they felt coerced. Also, there’s a potential sense that employees have left because of this situation, and if so, the supervisor/manager might deserve harsh discipline.

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