Tampering with a drink

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about report of tampering with one’s drink:

How should I handle a situation where an employee reported that someone had put some hand sanitizer in her glass of water? Her straw and the drink tasted like hand sanitizer which she also kept on her desk. She has an idea who might have done it.

Signed, Very Concerned

Dear Very Concerned:

My response may be a bit more than you were asking for, but this is such a serious matter that I want to make sure you know how strong your reaction should be. Putting hand-sanitizer or anything else in something someone will eat or drink is not just the action of a mean-spirited person, it is criminal in most states. The employee whose drink was tampered with would probably need to be the one to make the criminal complaint, but it certainly would be merited, if it is illegal in your state.

You could find that out by contacting the office of the District Attorney or a similar office. The average officer would probably not know the exact details of the law, although they could find out. But, the best resource would be the prosecuting official. Check the Internet for the number of times hand sanitizer has been placed in the drinks of teachers and what has happened. If you were going to take that action you would need the drink with the suspected ingredients in it.

Even if there was no suspect, the matter could at least be investigated, in most states (not all.)The second issue is this: If you do not make a strong response to this and something else were to happen, it puts your organization in a liability situation, with relation to not taking due precautions to prevent harm. If you are in a company that is large enough to have a legal advisor or HR, you should talk to them about it.

The third issue is this: If an employee would do that, they would do anything else. She (I’ll make the assumption, which may not be true, that a female employee is suspected) almost certainly knew there was a potential for the person drinking the water to become at least slightly nauseous. So, she intended harm, even though the harm they intended may have been slight in her mind. You and I would not do that. An employee should not do that. Keep that in mind: She intended to do harm. That’s scary.

There is also the concern that once something like this is done, she may feel the need to do it again to someone else, to throw off the trail. Or, others may do it since they figure one person would get the blame. Or, someone will do it to their own drink or food to get someone else in trouble, now that the concept has been introduced.The fourth issue is this: If your workplace has that kind of conflict going on, there are some serious concerns that need to be handled.In addition to the potential of asking for a criminal investigation (which you may not do or may not want to do), you can do several other things. If you are in a larger organization, get advice from someone higher, but keep reminding them that they aren’t restricted like a police officer or prosecutor is. If there is a reason to think someone did it, that is reason enough to either dismiss, severely sanction, or give a written warning to say that all further contentious activities must cease.

I have often found that employers think they have to have proof of wrongdoing and that strong suspicion isn’t enough to take action. That is almost never the case. Strict fairness may make us want to do it that way, and I can agree with that. But, if there is some indication that it would be likely, it would be foolish to not act on that. If there is an EEOC issue (different races, an age issue, a gender issue, etc.), you will certainly want to strategize your response, but that should not stop you or the organization from taking a stand.(1.) Is there any way to prove who did it? Would interviewing others provide information? Would a reasonable person have a strong suspicion of who did it, based on circumstances? Why does the victim think she knows who did it? Have there been threats before? Has the suspected employee done anything aggressively hostile in the past, even if it wasn’t this?

Remember, actions nearly always escalate. So, if the suspected employee has done other things it may be that this was an escalation. There will be an escalation from this,unless her pattern is halted.(2.) Does it seem to you that the conflict is mutual and the victim may have done things as well? Is it possible this was set up to blame the other employee?(3.) Has the suspected employee been effective in every other way or is this just one more thing? Is it time to dismiss her anyway or would she be considered a valuable asset, other than this? I find that people will hang on to an employee long past the time when they are being effective.

This is a good guideline: Knowing what you know about this employee, based not just on this but on other things, would you hire this employee now if you had to make that decision? If you were told you could dismiss the suspected employee and there would be no chance or repercussions or unpleasantness, would you do it then?If not, then this merits a warning, but perhaps not a severe warning. If so, consider whether you want to continue with her in her job.(4.) You should talk to all the employees in the office, so you can warn them to watch their water and food and to let them know that someone has done such a thing. If you don’t talk to everyone and it happens again, you could be viewed as being at fault. You could do it one at a time or in a group. Tell them what happened and tell them that anyone identified as doing it could be charged with assault and could be fired. (You know they will be fired or at least I hope your company would do that). But, for warning purposes saying they could be charged and could be fired will be sufficient and might encourage someone to come forward about what they know. If they think someone will for sure be fired, they might not come forward.(5.) Deal with the contentious situation too. Talk to the employee who is suspected and be honest with her that her actions in the past make her seem likely in this case. Don’t apologize for thinking it, if it seems likely. You’re not accusing her criminally, you’re just saying that a reasonable person would think she might have been upset enough to do it. Then, you can tell her that this is a good time for you to make it clear that the focus at work should be on work, not on conflict. In the future you want the gossip, lack of cooperation and open hostility to stop. INSTEAD, you want her to focus on work, refuse to gossip, be quick to assist and help the other employee and act in such a way that other people won’t know there IS a conflict.Be sure to tell her the things you want her to do instead of what she is now doing.I hope these thoughts help you solidify your own. I especially wanted to make sure this wasn’t glossed over, because you can’t prove anything. You know someone did it, and that someone is going to be at work every day.

So, you need to make sure there is no doubt that this is viewed very, very seriously. I sincerely hope that if you find out who did it, they are dismissed. I can promise you, if they have done this, they’ve done other things you don’t know about.Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

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.