Accused Of Unethical Action!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about hostile environment:

I am a manager who feels that my account director is actively pursuing a hostile work place strategy designed to force or eliminate managers from the account so as to replace them with lesser-paid supervisors. I have been on this account for 4 years, and in the last 3 we have had 99% employee retention. Eight months ago there was a change in the account director position. The new director came in identifying himself as a fire fighter. He comes to accounts to straighten them out. He also brought in his previous area operations manager from outside the company, not giving fair consideration to qualified internal candidates for this position.Since his arrival there have been 8 managers leave the account. Four were terminated or Reduction in Force, 3 quit on there own accord due to the feeling of being forced out (this is what I was told by them) and 1 is going through chemo currently. His position was posted at the lesser supervisor description 2 weeks after his FMLA protection expired. During this period the director and the area ops manager have been not communicated or have had limited communication with he site managers. They have never been to my site, and I have gone months without any interaction with either. Along with this, there have been routine announcements of organizational changes within the account.

The meetings to roll out the new organization chart were cancelled three times. At the start of the meeting with the announcement, he said that HR would not allow him to do what he wanted. There was no further explanation. This caused the management staff to feel that their positions were to be eliminated due the vacated positions being posted as supervisors. This caused me to feel threatened for my future with the company, at 52 years old. My attempts to meet with my superiors to discuss these actions and my future with the organization were not successful. This treatment caused me extreme stress and anxiety that affected my ability to concentrate, sleep etc. I felt like I was being encouraged to leave.

Last Friday @ 2:00pm I was visited by the senior ops manager and our HR manager. I was informed they were there to investigate me for an ethics violation due to actions I had taken during one of my recent out of town trips. I had flown to Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, with the total travel time in excess of 8 hours. I was to return home after putting in 60 hours that week from Sunday thru Thursday. On the return leg of my trip from Philadelphia I had the option of a one stop flight with the stop being in Pittsburgh. As this is where my family lives I asked the company travel coordinator if I could split the ticket, staying in Pittsburgh from that Thursday and continue home on the following Monday in the PM. The flight was booked and this is the action I took. The ethics violation states that I falsified my time sheet by putting down 8 hours daily, Mon thru Fri and that I did not work on the Friday.

As an exempt employee I have for the last 10 years always reported my time as 8 hours Monday thru Fri regardless on work in excess of 8 hrs or work on weekends. I was informed that the travel on Sunday was expected of my position and did not count towards my 40 for the week, that even though my travel on Sunday exceeded 8 hours. I was expected to work that Friday or 6 days in the same workweek. I have never seen this policy stated in writing nor have I heard this verbally. This is a common practice for exempt employees returning from road trips.

The other part of the allegation stated that by splitting the ticket my air fare was $370.00 more than the lowest available non stop fare, this was viewed as stealing from the company. Even though I have full budget responsibility and this cost fit my budget.I was investigated on a Friday afternoon @ 2:00pm, even though these actions took place more than 30 days previous. I was told they meant to come to see me on Tuesday so as to address the issue in the same workweek. They said they were too busy. I was scheduled to leave on the next Monday for a week at the Philadelphia site. I was told that if the decision was to discipline me and that they would call on Tuesday–that if the decision were to terminate me there would be no call. I went through he weekend wondering and went to Philadelphia on Monday.

Tuesday came and I received no call.When I inquired I was told the senior ops manager would not be calling me this day. Alone on the road, I was suffering from extreme anxiety, to be accused of theft after 10 years of outstanding service and having done nothing different than I had done numerous times before. I began to experience chest pains. After insisting on some form of communication, I received a call late Wednesday, I was informed that I was to be given a final warning, that the letter would go into my personal record forever with no expiration date, that I would not have to pay back any money.

This however world have a permanent impact on my merit increases and internal advancement opportunities.I have never seen any disciplinary letter that was open-ended or perpetual with no end date. I am to receive a visit from the senior ops manager this week where I am to sign my letter stating that I admit I falsified my time sheet and violated the ethics policy by splitting my ticket.

On my return I called my senior operations manager three times to report my actions, and to date he still has not returned my call. I feel that I am being targeted to quit or be terminated so as the company can post my position at the lesser supervisor level to save cost. I think the Account Director is personally pursuing this strategy to coerce managers off the account.I am struggling with my ability to perform under the disciplinary actions chosen, I feel this course of action is designed to create a hostile work environment and cause me so much stress forcing me to quit. I have not signed the warning letter and struggle with the ethics of signing something I feel is not true. If I do not sign the letter I can be terminated immediately. I do not know what to do.

Signed, Confused

Dear Confused:

You have two situations with which to grapple–and I can imagine that you are experiencing a great deal of stress over this situation. I hope I can share some thoughts that will assist you. The two situations may be linked, but they are two distinctly different issues: The most important is an allegation against you about wrongdoing related to use of budget and time keeping. The second is your concern about organizational changes.

1. I strongly suggest that you seek legal counsel about the matter of allegations regarding your actions related to travel and whether or not you should sign a letter about it. Do not sign a letter admitting wrongdoing unless you believe you did something wrong. I think you should instead insist that your own letter of response be placed in your records to rebut the allegation, but an attorney may better achieve that than you on your own and may even craft the letter for you. Your response can have an impact on your livelihood now and in the future, so you should not do anything without knowing the full impact. If asked to sign the document again, say that you are seeking legal advice about it and will make a decision about it after that. Apparently the matter has been reviewed and you are not going to receive disciplinary action–that is a good thing. As far as the letter being maintained forever, that is not uncommon in matters related to ethics, since the reason other matters are purged is that it is felt they are not severe enough to be used as part of future allegations of wrong. But in ethics matters, something can be used to show a tendency, even years later. That doesn’t make you feel any better I’m sure! But, I’m letting you know that to say that the actions taken about that matter are not unusual, so may not indicate a specific effort to create a problem for you by your manager. If you see an attorney, usually the first meeting is free as a consultation. Have any company policies, ethics manuals or documents that would help you show your case, with you. The key when working with attorneys is to do as much of the work yourself as possible, so don’t make them research the material and charge you for it! Have the salient points typed for them and make sure you have everything that might apply. Explain your situation and what you are seeking as an outcome. At this point, your first concern is to minimize the damage of this allegation and find out what you should or shouldn’t sign. Your second issue is to find out is there is any civil recourse regarding the stress of the current situation.

2. If you can, respond to communications about this in writing. If you have a conversation, either personally or by phone, about the matter, follow it up with an email that begins, “This is to document the conversation we had about………. I want to ensure that I clarify what was said by both of us.” The fact that you are writing about it will signal to anyone that you are, in fact, documenting, so there’s no point in being coy about it.

3. When this is all done, consider your options about who should know how details of this were handled. I think the worst part was being told to wait for a phone call and that not getting one meant you were terminated! I hope you have that in writing. If not, it will remind you to always ask for anything that serious, to be sent to you via email or memo so you will be clear about what you are being told. I don’t know the size of your company, but I don’t know of any reputable HR person who would support that kind of approach to the process. If the phone calls you received about that were from managers in your own chain of command, they may have been doing so without the approval of HR. If HR was responsible, someone higher than them should be aware of it.How you proceed is strictly up to you and your knowledge of your organization, but when this is all over, I would consider writing to the highest level in the company to express my concern about how you were treated. This is something else an attorney could help you with. A well-crafted letter might shake up a lot of things!

4. That being said, take a moment to get control mentally over this situation your self. While I do not agree with the manner in which this has been handled, I can see that an investigation would be appropriate, and according to the outcome, that some action would need to be taken or the matter dropped. In this case, the action taken is that you are being warned, which is the minimal action that could be taken. That’s a good sign for you that others do not think you did anything with willful intent. Consider this: How you handle this will be reviewed by many who do not even know you, or don’t know you well. What image do you want them to have of you? This is a time to exhibit professionalism, self-control and clear thinking and communicating. It is not the time for expressions of anger, excessive emotion, or obsessive fear or nervousness. Whatever you think might be the motivation, for this action, on its face it would be something that would need to be at least looked into. Take the approach–if you think it is a good one for you in your work situation–that you did nothing wrong and you are hurt and offended by the way it is being handled–particularly the unnecessary anxiety you were caused.

5. Now for the issue about your feelings that managers are being moved out in order to allow the hiring of lower paid staff. The phrase “hostile work environment” is generally reserved for environments that are hostile to protected classes of employees or that create environments that violate EEO laws. I mention that to say that, while you may have a workplace that is very negative, it is likely not hostile under the law. You may, however, have civil recourse about some aspects of the anxiety you feel you are suffering. You may not have that recourse, according to the situation, but that is also something an attorney could advise you about. For example, the fact that your job and pay rate is in jeopardy is not unusual in workplaces and likely would not be viewed as excessive. Yes, it is very frustrating to you and seems unfair–but many businesses downsize (to use the nice phrase) by laying off and reclassifying employees or by changing the organization to allow for hiring lower paid people in formerly higher paid jobs. This is a logical business practice in some cases. So, the fact that someone was brought in to target certain jobs for grade reduction, is a sign of the times and happens in many businesses. That would likely not constitute a civil liability situation by your company, no matter how upsetting it is to employees–or even the impact it has on their lives. The only way it would likely be a matter for legal action would be if there was an adverse impact on a protected class–in this case, most likely, age related. But even then, it might be viewed as a business necessity.I do not believe it is likely you can show wrongdoing when it comes to a business trying to save on salaries. If you are being lied about or set-up to get you to leave or be fired, then you may have recourse.

But, in the allegations against you that you have mentioned, it is likely that most businesses would question the situation–especially when splitting tickets cost extra money. That is a very common issue in travel matters and one in which it is nearly always found that the employee has to pay back the money. So, you are fortunate that didn’t occur. Again, that still doesn’t lessen the poor way in which it was handled and I still don’t think you should sign a statement that you did wrong knowingly. That’s why I suggest an attorney for at least one session of advice.If you have the time available you may wish to take off a few days to get yourself put together mentally about it and to allow you to see an attorney. If that’s not possible, hold your head up about it and treat it like a miscarriage of justice that you do not intend to let mar your work record or your focus. If you wish to stay working where you are, you will need to maintain your high value to the company. Handling this well will help that. Be the one person they don’t want to lose, no matter what your salary. They may eventually eliminate all the higher paid positions anyway, but at least you will have had your job longer than if you gave up too soon. And you won’t be slinking or slamming out the door! Best wishes as you develop a plan for this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how things develop. It’s hard to think of others when so stressed. So first seek help for yourself and then think of what is good for your organization. Fighting that fight is what we call WEGO.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.