False Ethics Accusation

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors involving my personal life and inappropriate information I allegedly shared with my staff (sexual comments).

I received an completely false “ethics accusation” that was involving my personal life and inappropriate information I allegedly shared with my staff (sexual comments). Interestingly, the complaint came in when my entire staff was with me in a meeting. I have been working with HR and Security on some issues and feel this may be in retaliation but quite frankly, I am just not sure.

My biggest concern is that this type of complaint is confidential and the same person could call again and again. I’m so upset about all this, I even went to see the company psychologist for advice. She felt it was a one-time thing but if this is retaliation then the person I’m dealing with will not stop. What can I do to protect myself?

Signed, Concerned

Dear Concerned:

It’s frustrating and anxiety producing to have such a complaint made if you feel it is unfair or completely false. Apparently the complaint was a phone call, since you say the complaint came in while you were at a meeting. Thus, one can assume that someone in your meeting made sure a friend or spouse chose that time to make the call.There are a couple of perspectives about the likelihood of this being a one-time thing, and also several perspectives about what you should do. Let me share some thoughts and see if they help you with this.

I’ve investigated well over a hundred complaints alleging inappropriate remarks. I have never found one alleged by a direct witness to be without SOME basis in fact. Sometimes one word was taken out of context, sometimes words were misunderstood, sometimes not as much was said as was alleged, sometimes the person who made the remark used poor judgement at that moment, but rarely did such a thing before or after.

But, in every case that I can recall, where the complainant said they directly heard a remark, something led them to think they could back up their complaint with a witness or other evidence. The times when something has been alleged that absolutely, positively did not occur, have always been when the complaint was made by a third party, repeating what they had been told by a spouse, friend, child or employee. That brings me to this complaint about you. If the call was made by someone who was doing it on their own because of something they had been told by an employee, you will likely never hear about it again. Or, it will be another anonymous call without substantiating facts. The employee who would have to come forward for this to be investigated fully, would know there was no truth to it. Even very mean people don’t usually create a complete lie–they use at least some portion of the truth as they know it or think it.If the person doing the calling did so at the request of an employee, then you might hear about it again. The employee might be frustrated that no further action was taken, and might ratchet the complaint up a notch with a letter instead of a call, for example.

You didn’t say what your organization did in response to this call. I would think they talked to you and asked you if there was something brewing they should know about–and maybe advised you to be cautious about your remarks in the future, whether or not you were guilty of wrong doing in this case.If another complaint is made, your organization will probably feel obligated to check into it further to show that they took their liability issues seriously. After all, that is often how problems are uncovered, even at the early stages.However, keep this in perspective to allow yourself to breathe easier. If you have no prior history of problems, have not been warned about such comments in the past, and have a good work record otherwise, you are not likely to be in big trouble, even if you said the alleged thing. That assumes it was not tremendously offensive or intimate, and that it was not a regular part of your conversation. If you didn’t say the alleged thing, you simply didn’t say it and that’s all there is to it. No one can prove you said it and others will likely swear you never said such a thing or anything like it.

At this point I think you should tell your manager about your concerns over this. Ask for advice from your manager’s perspective. Reassure that person about your professionalism and what you think might have led to the complaint. Get advice for how you are handling that situation as well, so you aren’t inadvertently creating conflict that comes back to haunt you.I don’t mean this next part as an accusation about you: When you talk to your manager, make sure you tell the absolute truth about any aspect of this. If you can’t tell the truth, skip over that part! Nothing makes someone feel angrier than feeling they were duped by someone who got their support in claiming their innocence about a charge.If you admit something and it’s later proven to be true, you were shown to be honest. If you swear you didn’t do something, but later it is proven that you did, you not only get in trouble for the thing you did, but you are viewed much worse for making others believe you.I’m not saying you have done anything–but I would be remiss to not caution you about that. And, this may be read by others looking for advice about a similar situation.In the meantime, keep your focus on your work. Don’t discuss this with anyone other than your manager, HR or others who are in an official capacity. Don’t try to investigate on your own, unless you can do so without anyone involved ever knowing. Otherwise you can look as though you are trying to intimidate people or coerce a statement from them.The less you say about it, the more likely it is to go away. If you have already mentioned it, don’t do so again and tell people that you think it is better to let it got away on it’s own, if they mention it to you. In the case of your manager, HR or others, talk about it enough to get it out in the open, then drop it. I once worked with someone who had a complaint made. His boss advised him to not worry and said he didn’t take it seriously. But, my co-worker said something about it, in a joking tone, at almost every meeting. Finally the boss called him in and said he was tired of hearing about it, and it made him wonder why this employee kept talking about it, if he didn’t do anything wrong.I recall the old adage: Never chase a lie. If you leave it alone it will run itself to death. If you chase it and catch it, you’re almost certain to get bitten.Whether or not other employees know about the complaint, be an example to all employees about professionalism. I often tell people that if they are going to be investigated, they should make sure the most recent things people can talk about are good ones!At this point I think you would be creating more upset for yourself to do more than to make your manager aware of your concerns, be cautious about your behavior and stay focused on good quality work. Hopefully you’ll never hear of this again. If you do, you’ll be in much better condition than otherwise.You say you are involved in a situation that might create conflict. If so, keep your eye on the goals you are trying to achieve, and work to build trust and a positive relationship with everyone in your workplace. It is possible to even turn enemies around, by communicating openly and honestly with them. Talk and listen. Don’t try to make friends, try to be effective in your role. At least you know you will be strengthening the positive relationships you already have! Best wishes. If you have the time and want to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe