What Should I Do About An Unfair Disciplinary Investigation?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being sanctioned over how a conflict was handled. 

 Question:
I was put off the clock for loud verbal altercation with an employee and I’m the only one put off the clock. (16.7 Emergency Off-Duty Status). I was ganged up on by five African Americans, taunting, bullying. Only thing I said was this wasn’t personal it’s business.

And I’m the one fighting for my job?

Response:
We are not employment attorneys and don’t have expertise in employment law or union issues. Thus, this response is merely the opinion of an ordinary person doing some research and trying to provide basic assistance. I’m sorry that you’re having this happen, especially at this time of year. I hope you can get it resolved quickly.

Based on the reference to 16.7, Emergency Procedure (16.7 Emergency Placement Off-Duty Status) I expect you are a USPS employee. I don’t know any of the details of the situation (how long the conflict had been building, what it was about, what happened right at the time, etc.). However, it seems to fall into the category of an employment action for which you should seek your union’s support through the grievance process. I would expect if you received a 16.7 action, it stated at the bottom that you have 14 days to grieve it.

Apparently whatever the allegations are, they will be investigated. Unfortunately, you will be without pay until a disposition of the case has been determined. If the case is easily investigated and quickly decided about, that might be a short amount of time.

Many governmental agencies and large companies, take the approach that if someone is being investigated for something for which they could be negatively sanctioned, they shouldn’t be allowed to continue in the office until the matter is investigated and resolved one way or another. However, it seems to me that placing someone on leave without pay is already a negative sanction. I can understand why that 16.7 procedure has created a lot of grievances. I can also understand the position of management, because often angry employees use poor judgment about their actions. But, as in your case, it can be the source of a lot of feelings of unfairness—which creates even more conflict between employees.

Some questions to answer for whoever you discuss this with, will be:
1. Were any charges brought against the others, whether or not they were placed on emergency off-duty status, or where you the only one charged with a violation? As part of the grievance you might ask that the matter be investigated further, to ensure that anyone who violated a rule be treated equally.
2. Were you intoxicated to any degree at all?
3. Did you yell at or become very angry with the supervisor/manager? Is it possible he or she felt that if you stayed on the job you would increase the anger or cause problems with the work or with others?
4. Did anyone state they were fearful of your actions? If one of your coworkers said they felt afraid of what you might do next, management may have felt they had no choice but to use the 16.7 procedure. However, that still may not have justified it.
5. Have you been warned before about similar situations? If you have had similar verbal confrontations and been warned about them, your manager may have felt this time deserved something more severe. However, the 16.7 procedure sounds to me, as a lay-person reading it, to only refer to the specific situation, not to a combination of situations.
6. What exactly was the dialogue involved in the altercation? Write it down word for word, giving the name of the person making each comment you transcribe, so the reader can get a good mental picture, like a movie script. Describe tone of voice, physical actions, etc. If the area is under video surveillance, ask for a copy of the video for the union representative to view. I would expect that it would be important to the grievance to establish a reason for the emergency off-duty placement. If nothing visible or verbal would indicate you were more of a threat than the others, that could be helpful.
7. You state: “Only thing I said was this wasn’t personal it’s business.” I imagine much more was said than that! That short phrase wouldn’t make sense as a stand-alone comment and certainly would not have been considered worthy of correction—unless you screamed it in a manager’s face. So, write out what you said and what they said and what your supervisor said, etc. Don’t try to soften your own comments, state them correctly, just as you should not try to make the other comments sound worse. Just write it word for word, as well as you remember what was said.
8. Ask for union assistance and stay on top of the situation, to make sure it is processed quickly. I don’t know if it’s possible to rescind an emergency off-duty placement before the end of an investigation, but perhaps now that things have calmed down, that is possible. Your union rep could tell you about that.
9. When you talk to anyone about this, even coworkers who are friends, talk calmly and reasonably and stay focused on how much you want to get back to work and put this all behind you. You may find you will have to accept more responsibility for the situation than you think is fair. But, it may be necessary if you want to be seen as someone who is mentally and emotionally able to handle negative situations.
10. When you return to your job you may need to develop a new way of dealing with conflict, if there have been problems in the past. One thing you can do is step away and take yourself out of it. You don’t have to stand still and be yelled at. You don’t have to respond to mean comments. Next time, you be the one who asks for management’s assistance. Don’t give anyone something to use against you. That’s just reasonable behavior, when you already know you have to watch your back.
I wish there was an easy answer to this, because I can well imagine how upsetting it is. However, hopefully, the truth will be found out and justice will at least prevail well enough to keep unfair things from happening. In the meantime, you will need to draw on a lot of inner strength and the support of those who care for you, to stay calm and positive. I hope you will do that and find reasons for happiness as you go into the New Year.

Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors