Employment Investigations: ‘She Said, He Said.” Are we stuck?!

“A simple “he said, she said” might stop some HR professionals in their tracks, but implementing an Awareness Talk allows you to satisfy the need to address alleged behaviors, protect the accuser and protect the company.”

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

With No Additional Witnesses? There’s Nothing We Can Do Here, Right? If you haven’t faced this yet, you certainly will in any employee relations role. Susan comes to human resources sharing details of Gary’s dastardly action. The accusations are big enough that HR makes this a priority and immediately starts an internal investigation. The one catch in this situation is that there were no witnesses. Let’s assume Gary’s alleged action was significant enough to warrant immediate termination, if validated.

Where there were no witnesses, the next logical step in the investigation would be to interview Gary and present him with an opportunity to share his story. What if, when presented with the accusation, the Gary says “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t do anything of the sort.

You’re stuck, right? There’s nothing more you can do, is there?


Let’s consider the risk before we simply walk away with a shoulder shrug and assume that we’ll never get to the absolute truth (which may actually be the case).

If Susan is telling the truth, and Gary’s actions were in fact that bad, the company now knows about the alleged activity and has a duty to act to protect Susan. The company also now has a duty to make sure that Susan is not retaliated against, again, assuming that the allegations are valid. The company may also be held accountable for addressing Gary’s inappropriate behavior in a manner that would be enough to prevent it from occurring again.

On the other hand, if Susan made the story up, a false accusation could be extremely damaging to Gary, and no company wants to reinforce the value of a powerful untruth.


Despite the “he said, she said” nature of the ‘complete’ investigation, there is in fact something effective that can be done that respects both parties (Gary and Susan) and protects the company. I call it an AWARENESS TALK.

The Awareness Talk With The Accused

Once you’ve conceded that “she said, he said” represents the complete investigation, the Awareness Talk happens first with Gary (the accused) and might sound something like this: “Gary, we spoke earlier about the allegations we heard about your inappropriate behavior. I also recognize that you are denying that these things occurred. I am not accusing you of these actions, but (since we’re on that topic) let’s at least have an awareness talk about appropriate work behaviors and boundaries.”

The non-confrontational and non-accusatory approach of the Awareness Talk allows you to coach Gary, in detail, and record that this discussion has taken place.

That meeting needs to conclude with a review of a non-retaliation standard, especially if Susan’s name has been shared or is known. This can also be approached in a non-accusatory way like this: “Now Gary, before we finish, I’m sure you’re aware that employees have a right to bring concerns forward without fear of retaliation. I know you pretty well and can’t imagine that you would do anything like this, but just wanted to remind you of this. We’re not going to have any issues with this, are we?”

So, this is what we share with Gary, the accused. What do we share with Susan (the accuser)?

The Awareness Talk With The Accuser

After Susan is told that you were unable to validate the story, you are now in a position to confirm to Susan that “the behavior has been addressed and will not happen again” and that she will “not be retaliated against” in any way.

You should also ask Susan to immediately report any repeat behaviors and any sense of retaliation directly to her manager (or to HR). You can reassure her that these behaviors will not be tolerated in any way.

How does this protect the company? Let’s suppose that Gary was dishonest with HR and his behaviors were reported again in the future. If the company’s actions were scrutinized by an external party, it would be able to show that it actually did a pretty effective job of teaching policy and appropriate behaviors, despite the absence of a validated story-line.

Let’s suppose that Susan was being dishonest and just wanted to get Gary fired. The non-accusatory approach of the Awareness Talk prevents the company from being held liable for repetitional harm that might accompany a false accusation.


If you would prefer to strengthen the nature of the Awareness Talk, I would recommend implementing a tactic that I learned from Jathan Janove, called a ‘Same Day Summary.’ The Same Day Summary is a written document (which could be an email) to the individual that is delivered to the individual to summarize the day’s meeting.

To illustrate how a Same Day Summary works, after HR met with Gary, an email would be sent to Gary on that same day that summarized the nature of the conversation. The tone could continue to be non-accusatory, but would detail the scope of the discussion. “Gary, as you are aware we met today to discuss appropriate behavior in the workplace and more specifically reviewed these six topics . . . Please let me know if this summary does not match your recollection of the meeting or if you have any questions.”


A simple “he said, she said” might stop some HR professionals in their tracks, but implementing an Awareness Talk allows you to satisfy the need to address alleged behaviors, protect the accuser and protect the company.

An Awareness Talk coupled with a Same Day Summary gives you double the teaching opportunities and provides even additional documentation, should the company’s practice ever be brought into question.

A seasoned employee relations person recognizes that there are always two sides to every story, and that rarely do all of the facts line-up. Having an Awareness Talk in your bag of tools will be a helpful practice for any HR professional, especially when we’re stuck with very different stories.

For more information on Rod Lacey or Sunstone HR, click here!

Amplify HR Department Service Levels – Go “Boundaryless”!

“HR leaders, I am encouraging you to open the gates and tear down the walls.”

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech in Berlin at the Brandenberg Gate and issued a challenge to the Soviets:

“There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

I want to introduce “one sign the” HR leader in an organization “can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the” service level of the HR department in the organization. HR leaders, I am encouraging you to open the gates and tear down the walls.

What I am referring to is what I call Boundaryless Service. If a human resource team can embrace operating in a boundaryless way, service levels will reach a new high and organizational support and confidence in the HR team will greatly increase.


Simply stated, Boundaryless is a commitment within the HR team that they will serve immediately, and at any level in the organization. Boundarless doesn’t change accountabilities, but it does dismantle territorialism.

There are three key commitments that must be in place for Boundaryless Service to work within an organization.

  • First, is a commitment to developing the HR team.
  • Second, is an understanding that there is an open door and even encouragement to serve wherever possible.
  • Third, there is a solid commitment to provide timely updates to individuals who have related accountabilities. 

Develop. Serve. Inform.

A simple example I use to teach this is the following scenario:

The HR team has been educated on accountabilities, not just within the department, but around the organization.


An employee comes to the HR department and says “I would like Cherry Coke in the soda machine downstairs.” The Boundaryless response from any member of the HR team would be something like, “I think that’s a great suggestion. I will see what I can do.” (This boundaryless HR team member then owns this assignment until it is appropriately handed-off or resolved)


The HR team member would then follow-up with the team responsible for the soda machine (say the cafeteria) and see if this is a viable option. Upon learning the answer, the HR person could either relay the information back to the employee directly, or get the cafeteria manager to commit to relay this information to the employee.

Bingo! The employee was immediately served, his request considered, and accountabilities were respected!

Tear Down The Walls

Human resource professionals committed to Boundaryless service will check their egos at the door and recognize that the whole HR team is working towards the same objectives, and that multiple resources are always greater than just one. Territorialism, internal competitiveness and department segmentation mentalities have got to take a back seat to the customer service commitment.

For example, a good HR leader will celebrate when a business partner is seen meeting with the CEO or one of her peers. A good HR team member will react only positively when one of their assigned internal customers is seen meeting with another member of the HR team.

Gone are the days of “Don’t speak with my boss without coming to me first.”
Let’s be done with “Why is she always meeting with members of ‘my’ department?”

How does this improve service levels? With everyone in the department committed to immediately satisfying organizational needs, developed cross-functionally, and throwing all available resources at any need, chances are that issues will be resolved quicker, in a less bureaucratic way.

Say goodbye to statements like “Judy is over benefits. I will let her know you stopped by.”

Instead, every employee in the department is prepared and trained to handle these basic questions. Thus, service is expedited, the employee experience is improved and the organization is better served.

Development Is Key

Ongoing HR team development is an important component of Boundaryless Service.

I made it a practice, for example, for each member of my HR teams, regardless of their area of speciality, to present at one of the benefit Open Enrollment meetings annually. Accountability for benefit responsibilities didn’t change, but this enabled and empowered the entire HR team to answer basic benefit questions that would regularly come to the department. Technical questions could still be routed to the benefits person, but most questions could be adequately answered immediately. The loop would then be closed with the individual offering the service to inform the benefits person who had the question and what was shared. (Develop. Serve. Inform.)

Staff meetings are a perfect opportunity for the team to share insights about their specific assignments and answers to common employee questions. Team members are also taught that if they don’t know the answer, they shouldn’t guess. It is still okay to refer people directly to the expert!

Exceptions to this standard do exist, however. If someone approaches a member of the HR team to seek support in a more sensitive area, such as compensation or a potential harassment or discrimination complaint, those should be immediately referred to the individual both trained and accountable for those issues.

To bring the service levels of your HR team to the next level, let’s tear down some walls! Let’s open doors and truly work together as a team. Let our commitments be to promptly resolving concerns and solving problems with all of our resources. Let’s be clear and respect accountabilities, but embrace each other’s help in achieving our organization’s goals and raising the service level (and reputation) of our HR department.

Let’s serve the organization better than ever before. Let’s serve Boundaryless!

For more information on Rod Lacey or Sunstone HR, click here!

Can A Kick In The Gut Propel You Forward?

“. . . these low-points provide us with a fairly significant choice – do we double-over and let the kick take us out of the fight, or do we use that kick to propel us forward toward something greater?”

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

Before the title of this article gets you caught-up in the laws of physics, let me clarify that I’m referring to a ‘professional’ kick-in-the-gut. You know the time when you’ve had that unfortunate event at work that hit you so hard that it hurt. Maybe it was a layoff. Maybe it was an unwanted transfer, demotion or role change. It may have even been that dreaded meeting where your manager brought you in and did his best to sound compassionate as he fired you. Whatever it was, that’s the kick-in-the-gut I’m referring to. Deserved or undeserved is not the issue. Fair or unfair also doesn’t matter in this equation. That. Just. Happened.

Most of us have, or will have one of these devastating meetings, and it sucks. Simply stated these are the low-points in our careers. However, these low-points provide us with a fairly significant choice – do we double-over and let the kick take us out of the fight, or do we use that kick to propel us forward toward something greater?

Let’s focus on the moments, days, weeks and months following the kick-in-the-gut and identify how we can use this kick in our favor. It is ultimately a choice we make, and the most exciting thing is that it is fully within our control.

Let me share a quick first-hand experience that illustrates how this works. This will be illustrated by two individuals selected for a layoff, whom we will nickname Rick and Deborah.

With my background in human resources I’ve had the tough ‘layoff’ discussion on far too many occasions. If you’ve been on the receiving end of this meeting at any point in your career, I’m sorry. Please let me assure you that it is not something that a good manager looks forward to.

When Rick was notified of his layoff, there was the standard reaction – shock, frustration, anger and ultimately a hasty exit from the facility. Rick struggled with the decision to the point that he wrote multiple negative online company reviews and wrote lengthy letters to company leadership in an attempt to tarnish the reputations of his now-former coworkers. Attempts from the company to positively communicate and assist him in finding a next opportunity were met with nothing but rage. Every struggle Rick faced as he sought his next opportunity was blamed on his prior company, which only added to his anger.

When kicked-in-the-gut, Rick was knocked down and embraced the pain and frustration,

allowing the cancerous nature of the frustration to consume him. Rick ultimately had choices to make after the kick to the gut, and chose the path of negativity and revenge. These choices unquestionably impacted his attitude, burned a bridge with his former employer and ultimately slowed his professional recovery.

Mandy Hale once said “A bad attitude can literally block love, blessings, and destiny from finding you. Don’t be the reason you don’t succeed.”

Let’s contrast Rick’s choices with how Deborah handled an almost identical situation. Deborah was called-in and given the same layoff notification. Deborah was of course shocked, but quickly moved to a position of support, asking what she could do to support her successor. Because of Deborah’s positive approach, she was allowed to stay on as an active employee for three weeks after the layoff notice (which I do not recommend as a practice) to assist in transition. During that three-week transition, only positive statements were made, even to those who approached Deborah and asked about how she felt about the decision to eliminate her position. Deborah seemed to embrace an attitude of “Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” (Charles R. Swindoll)

Deborah took the same kick as Rick, but instead decided to let the kick propel her forward. Instead of posting negative company reviews, Deborah started to receive positive recommendations on social media. She had coworkers and her network immediately step-up and start to refer her to new opportunities. Deborah’s positive attitude and fortitude created an even stronger fan base anxious to help.

Wade Boggs once said “A positive attitude causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events and outcomes. It is a catalyst and it sparks extraordinary results.

On the other hand, Rick’s actions earned him an unfortunate “do not rehire” mark permanently attached to his employee file. Albert Einstein observed, “Weak people revenge. Strong people forgive. Intelligent people ignore.

How did Deborah really feel? She was hurt by the decision and had anxiety about her future, but when I spoke to her, she held her head high and expressed excitement about what the future might hold. She didn’t know why she was selected for a layoff, but her only mention of revenge against the company was actually a positive one. Believe it or not, Deborah’s ‘revenge’ path would ultimately be a win-win for both her and the company. Deborah planned on making the company question this decision – not through negativity or bad company reviews online, but by her future achievements. “The best revenge is massive success,” said Frank Sinatra.

The choices we make, especially after facing a challenge, can have a significant impact on our recovery. When the kick-in-the-gut comes, recognize that you have TOTAL CONTROL over whether you let that knock you down, or propel you forward. I will always lean towards the latter!

For more information on Rod Lacey or Sunstone HR, click here!

“Get Back On The Horse, Son”

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

Perseverance Is Paramount to Success


At the age of 11 I had my own palomino horse that I named Buck, due to his buckskin color. Buck was a good workhorse and was great in the mountains, but I had ambitions of team roping with my father. Going to the arena with my dad to rope was something that I looked forward to. I mostly helped to herd the calves after they were released, but on one occasion I was given an opportunity to back into the chute and chase a ‘muley’ (calf without horns).

I excitedly backed Buck into the chute and when the gates opened I kicked Buck and did my best “Heeyah!” Buck didn’t move. The calf now well out of reach I kicked again. Buck calmly walked out of the chute, lowered his head and began to buck, trying to throw me. I held on for a few of the crow-hops, but eventually was thrown from the horse.

I dusted myself off, grabbed the reins and started to walk Buck to the side of the arena. I was done. I was embarrassed. I didn’t really want to ride any more.

My dad, seeing me walking the horse, calmly told me “Get back on the horse, son.” He knew that it was important for me to overcome my fears and that it was a great opportunity to teach me that I could do hard things.

I didn’t just get back on my horse, but my dad had me run another ‘muley’ that same night.* (see the ‘rest of the story’ at the end of this blog)

Bethany Hamilton, the famous surfer who lost her arm to a shark attack, said “you fall off the horse and you get back on.”

John Wayne was once quoted as saying “Courage is being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.”

Enough with the horse references for now.


Let’s face it. Each of us will fail. We will all take a fall. Setbacks will test and try us. That reality causes some people to hold back and play ultra conservative –  so afraid of failure that they refuse to take any chances.

We will all fail at some point. That’s a fact. When that happens, we must embrace the learning, get back up, and march boldly forward.

Mark Cuban said I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how many times you failed, you only have to be right once. I tried to sell powdered milk. I was an idiot lots of times, and I learned from them all.”

Consider some of the successful people who failed along the way:

Albert Einstein: Albert Einstein did not begin to speak until the age of 4 or read until he was 7. He was eventually expelled from school and denied entry to Zurich Polytechnic School. However, the name Einstein is now almost exclusively associated with genius.

The Beatles: One of the most famous musical groups of all time, The Beatles were originally rejected by many record labels. In one rejection letter, they were warned, “guitar groups are on the way out” and “the Beatles have no future in show business”.

Elvis Presley:  Elvis was fired by Jimmy Denny, then manager of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry after just one show saying “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”

J.K. Rowling: Penniless, recently divorced and raising a child on her own, she wrote the first Harry Potter book on an old, manual typewriter. Twelve publishers rejected the manuscript. When Bloomsbury finally agreed to publish the book, she was warned that there was “no money in children’s books.”

You might never fail on the scale I did,” Rowling shared. “But it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”

Harland Davis Sanders: Before becoming the now-famous Colonel Sanders, determined Harland submitted his now world famous fried chicken recipe to 1,009 restaurants before finding a buyer.

Henry Ford: Ford will always be known for innovating industrial production with the assembly line. However, before founding the extremely successful Ford Motor Company Henry was bankrupted and left penniless five times from failed ventures.

Michael Jordan: Most basketball fans are familiar that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. “MJ” will forever be known as one of the greatest basketball players. He didn’t let being cut from a team derail his quest for success.

Michael once said “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions, I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Steven Spielberg: After high school, Steven Spielberg was rejected three times from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television. After attending California State University, Long Beach he subsequently dropped out and pursued directing without a degree.

Thomas Edison: This inventor changed the world with his invention of the electric lightbulb, but was considered unteachable as a child. Before this great accomplishment, Edison discovered over 1,000 ways he could not build a light bulb.

Vincent Van Gogh: Van Gogh’s Starry Night ranks among the world’s most recognized paintings, however he sold only one of his over 800 paintings while living. Starving and often destitute while working on his paintings, Van Gogh’s then “unappreciated” work now sells for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Walt Disney: Walt Disney has entertained children all over the world for almost 100 years and created a billion-dollar merchandising empire. Walt was fired from his first job at the Kansas City Star because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” In an ironic turn of events years later the Walt Disney Company acquired the Kansas City Star with the purchase of the parent company ABC.


There is a Japanese Proverb that states “Fall seven times. Stand up eight.”

Given the above examples, shouldn’t we look forward to failure? Not necessarily. However, I think it’s fair to recognize that life comes with bumps in the road. Most roads to the top have detours, setbacks and potholes. Rarely is it ‘smooth sailing’ from start-to-finish.

If anything, the above examples encourage me to pursue my dreams, do my best and keep trying. And, if I fall along the way, maybe my name will be included in a future list of those who have persevered and ultimately succeeded. I will do everything I can to make sure my name won’t be included in a list of those who were too scared to try.


*Yes, I did run another ‘muley’ that night and Buck, true to his name, threw me again. The second time I landed on my back in the same arena, that same night, my compassionate father allowed me to put the horse in a trailer, with a commitment that I could ride his horse next time.

What’s the moral of this particular story? Throw me once, I’ll get back on. Throw me twice, I’m selling you and buying skis.

We’ll call horsemanship my “powdered milk, Mark Cuban” experience.

To learn more about Rod Lacey or Sunstone HR, Click Here.

Don’t Let Your Compassion Start a Zombie Outbreak at Your Company

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

Yes, you heard me right, too much compassion in an organization can create a zombie outbreak. Curious?! Please let me explain.

Let’s assume that Roger has been identified for termination, due to work performance. You could also swap-out ‘work performance’ for a simple layoff and the story remains basically the same.

As you sit with the CEO and COO to review how to orchestrate Roger’s departure, the COO identifies that he lives near Roger, and that he knows Roger and his family are going through some hard times. He doesn’t ask to reverse the decision (because it’s a good business decision), but does ask if there is some sort of compassion that could be showed to Roger.

What is decided is that Roger should receive what I refer to as a ‘work-out’ period. Roger will be told that he’s being let go, but given 45 days to remain employed and look for work. The compassionate manager felt that it would be easier for Roger to gain employment if there weren’t any gaps on his resume. They also considered how the extended dates would positively impact Roger’s benefits and hopefully ease him breaking the news to his spouse.


You know this type of manager! There are ultra-compassionate managers who simply can’t make these hard decisions, and when they must, they try to create as much padding as possible to soften the messaging.


Allowing an employee to continue working, after he has been notified of his termination, creates a period of time where I call him ‘the walking dead.’

Whether it’s the popular TV show on AMC, or the line from The Green Mile “Dead Man Walking” – we know what that means. We have someone of short-term, or no value walking our halls.

What can you expect from the walking dead in your building? After your compassion, only a small percentage will give their role full effort and energy. If the reason for termination was performance, that means you’re getting even less of the sub-par performance than ever before. How would this be a win for the employer?


Here are just a few of the risks associated with giving notice, then allowing the walking dead to roam your halls:

  • Roger could get another job and start to recruit your employees to follow him.
  • Roger could suffer a work-related injury that won’t go away as fast as his termination date.
  • Roger and his entire family could undergo surgeries that would run-up the company’s medical cost.
  • If Roger understands Medical Flexible Spending Accounts, he would likely spend all of the account, even if it’s early in the year and the account isn’t fully funded.
  • Roger could harass coworkers, creating a hostile work environment that could expose the employer.

What does Roger have to lose? Why would he be expected to remain committed to the organization?

I believe it’s clear that I am not an advocate for work-out periods because each of the above “risks” have happened to organizations I’ve been with.

In one situation, an individual that was terminated and allowed to pack his desk, and quietly left the building within 30 minutes of termination. In that brief, but unsupervised 30 minutes, he advised an active, high performing employee that she should get an attorney. Even a 30 minute work-out period failed!


Now before we commit to be fully heartless or cruel, let’s discuss a couple of different approaches

that simply work better.

First, if performance is the issue, please address it. Allowing an under-performing employee to remain employed makes little sense (if we’re to the point of termination), so simply let him go. Don’t delay, and don’t allow the walking dead to roam the halls for weeks.

Second, if you feel a need to be compassionate, don’t pay for 30-45 days of non-productive work that creates significant risk. If you insist on compensation, pay the individual something AFTER he’s left the building. If you’re just going to create risk with a work-out period, don’t do it! Offer the employee a lump-sum or schedule of payments, but probably in exchange for signing a waiver and release.


In my career I have had countless requests for work-out periods and have pushed-back on them all, but allowed several. I can honestly say that a couple of them turned-out okay. The vast majority, however, were a dismal failure. Most of those managers learned the hard way that their compassion came back to bite them, or the company.

When considering terminating an employee, work-out periods may seem compassionate, but they actually significantly increase the risks the employer may face related to that termination decision. If the decision is to terminate, get the employee out the door and avoid the zombie outbreak!

For more information on Rod Lacey or Sunstone HR, click here!