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I am the owner of a department store. One of our relatively new employees has claimed she was sexually assaulted by a manager while at a party not affiliated with the store. The case is underway, but she has come to me and complained that other employees treat her suspiciously and unfairly. She believes that the accused manager, who has worked here for a very long time and is friends with most of the other employees, has told them about the charge, and that they are getting revenge on his behalf. For their part, the other employees say that they treat her as a regular employee, and that she is often belligerent and rude both to them and to customers, without provocation, which has led to the actions and incidents she has perceived as unfair (for instance, a manager made her work in the back after she yelled at a customer, despite knowing that she disliked working in the back). These performance issues had been observed ever since her first day at this store. The accused manager (who now works shifts that do not overlap with hers) claims that he has not told anyone about the allegations and that it is in fact the new employee who has been sharing the story.

It concerns me that this employee feels threatened and unwanted at our store, and I would like to ensure that she feels safe and comfortable here. If people are taking revenge against her or trying to protect the accused employee, that is absolutely unacceptable. What can I do to ensure that no animosity is being directed at her due to general knowledge of her involvement in this case? How can I tell whether animosity towards her is due to her allegations or due to the poor quality of her performance? The people who have allegedly treated her unfairly are responsible people whom I trust, yet they are also very good friends with the accused manager. This is a situation in which I do not know what to do, and I have had trouble finding helpful resources.

At the same time, her performance has become a big issue, and I feel as though she is a liability to the store due to her treatment of customers. Multiple 1-star reviews have been posted on Yelp in the time since I hired her complaining about the rude service, two specifically mentioning her name. Yet I feel trapped, as though to terminate her employment will give the impression of a conspiracy against her to protect the employee accused of sexual assault.

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    Was there an assault? Was there a police investigation? – mhoran_psprep Apr 13 '14 at 10:51
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    Have you considered suspension with pay pending the results of the investigation, for one or both of the parties involved? Nobody can retaliate against her if she's not at the workplace. And removing her would solve the performance issues, for a time. – aroth Apr 13 '14 at 11:47
  • @mhoran_psprep police investigation is ongoing ("the case is underway") – Guaraldi Apr 13 '14 at 17:50
  • @Guaraldi - As a manager you should make it clear that ANY violtion of the rules will result in being suspended without pay. You will also have to address her performance problems. At this point everyone should understand, even if the claims are false, harassement will not be tolerated by anyone. Create any policy required to make this clear and have everyone agree to it. – Donald Apr 15 '14 at 12:30
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There are two separate concerns here, it's important to not conflate the two. Address both the way you normally would, individually and impartially.

  • Call the police to investigate the alleged assault and address the performance concerns the same way you would under normal circumstances. As the alleged incident did not occur within the domain of your organization, but you've been made aware, you're obligated to inform the police and act on the outcome of their investigation. You're already going in the right direction, separating the work paths of both parties involved. Pending the outcome of the investigation, you should do what you can to ease the stress on both parties. Arrange counselling for the alleged victim if you can; she'll need someone to talk to . Given the way things are turning out for her at work, she needs to feel the care of her employer before the outcome of any investigation.

  • The employee's performance issue should be addressed like it would under normal circumstances. I don't know what the procedure is in your organization but I believe it's fairly standard to issue performance warnings in the event of serious performance issues. Obviously, the alleged victim here would attempt to draw the conclusion that the warning is somehow related to her alleged sexual assault report. It's your responsibility to make it clear to her that that is not the case (it'll probably be best to pursue the report of the alleged assault with the cops before addressing the performance issue). She is to shape up or you will have to take appropriate action, per your organization's performance standards.

  • You can't mandate or otherwise enforce camaraderie. It would be unwise to try to require the cooperation of your other employees with the alleged vic. It's going to be difficult (if not downright impossible) for you to take any "vengeance-prevention" action without incurring the distrust and disapproval of your other staff. They no longer trust/like her; she's going to have to earn it back. You are however obligated to enforce the code of conduct of your organization, ensuring that no-one behaves unprofessionally towards the alleged victim. Any acts of sabotage should not be tolerated (within the bounds of the code of conduct e.t.c.). Ultimately, if professional behaviour and courtesy are maintained amongst all staff, you'll have a fully functional organziation; they don't have to be chummy to do their jobs well.

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    Can you cite references in support of the part about the employer being obliged to independently contact the police regarding an incident that occurred outside the workplace at a non-work function and which the employer did not witness? It seems to me that such a report would not be useful/appropriate as it is essentially hearsay. – aroth Apr 14 '14 at 2:37
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Document everything, speak with a lawyer

You will likely need to speak with an employment lawyer, however this is some immediate advice.

It sounds like you have a problem of a work issue become tangled with a personal issue. The assult is a personal and police matter, so for the time being compartmentalise it. Your problem is that you have a staff member who for reasons no longer wishes to work with a particular manager.

You've already gone as far as separating their shifts, also have both of them clear shift changes with you, and make sure these requests are in writing, agreed to and that all parties are aware of the requirements.

Quelling gossip and mistreatment by staff

At the moment you have the problem of employees gossiping about an issue that is only between two others. Also, at this stage neither the employee or their manager have been shown to have done anything wrong - either the assult or a false report.

As such, state that a personal issue between two staff members is currently being handles by police and is not a work issue, that both parties have been spoken to, and neither party should be treated differently or gossiped about until the matter is settled. State that any employees will be dealt with in whatever legal matters available in your area.

On the employes performance issues

Focusing on the staff performance, it appears the worker is not working well, and hasn't been working well since before any incident occured. If performance management is required, establishing a timeline is paramount so that the personal legal problems don't become an internal issue.

It already appears the staff member is being rude to customers and is complaining about other staff and has been since prior to any incident.

Print copies of the negative Yelp reviews and file them with HR. Ensure the dates of these clearly show the reviews occured after the employees start date, and are prior to any external incidents.

Additionally, speak with a lawyer regarding the prospect of termination if the report is false. Their actions could be seen as a serious breach of trust, and possibly perjury, if the employee made a false police report.

On the other hand, be prepared to take harsh action against the manager.

If it turns out that they have committed some wrong-doing, assult of a fellow co-worker may be considered a breach-of-trust in your jurisdction and grounds for dismissal - which if the allegations are true would be a fair course of action.

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    Get a lawyer who SPECIALIZES in this area. Firing the manager before he is convicted could open you up to a world of liability, as could even being perceived as being insensitive to the alleged victim. The alleged crime is terrible, but so is a false accusation. Until a jury decides or a plea is submitted, you have to treat both parties as though they are telling the truth. – Wesley Long Apr 16 '14 at 12:59
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As a owner, I would be extremely wary of taking any special precautions against vengeful action here. It was definitely right to make it to where the manager and the employee's shifts do not overlap, but the last thing you want is to be caught in some sort of defamation lawsuit brought on by your own manager.

I would reiterate to the employee that she is safe within the workplace, which you have already done, and make sure that other employees are not antagonizing her. If possible, this could be through greater direct supervision of the employees, at least for a short while. I would also speak with her new manager (the one on shift when she is on shift) to see if there is any animosity towards the employee in question, and what he/she thinks of the employee's performance.

Next, I would definitely address the employee's performance issues, especially in finding out why she is being belligerent toward customers. If her performance is that bad, you may want to suggest that she take a leave of absence (and possibly point her in a few directions toward counseling or therapy), at least while her legal case is ongoing. (NOTE: this is not termination of employment; she should feel free to come back when she and you are ready.) It may look like you're punishing an alleged victim, but at some point you have to draw a hard line and say that she needs to step it up, as you can't afford to have an employee that is repelling customers.

All in all, it seems like you've remained professional about the matter, but at this point, it really is up to the courts to decide what is to happen, and for the parties involved to remain as professional as possible within the workplace. Furthermore, any special action on your part toward her that is unrelated to performance and safety issues (such as addressing the team about what she is saying about them and how they need to treat her differently) could be perceived as defamation toward the accused manager, as you would effectively be asking them to take sides. Again, the last thing you want is to be involved in a lawsuit of your own.

  • Hey, thanks for the great answer! Two follow-ups: First, would actions such as telling management in general to be sure to treat her as fairly as any other employee (I wanted to avoid doing something like this since I felt like it might draw unwelcome attention to her) be perceived as defamation? I want to do everything possible to try to prevent any sort of revenge. Second, there is certainly some negative sentiment towards her, but it is very difficult to tell whether it is due to knowledge of her allegations or just due to her poor performance and attitude. Can I do anything about that? – Guaraldi Apr 13 '14 at 4:10
  • 1. No, as long as you mention that she should be treated normally, it's not defamation. At the same time, you'll definitely want to investigate why they have that negative sentiment, so that you can ensure that they're only reacting to her performance and are not taking sides (or reacting to you by taking sides) over the issue at hand. 2. I would follow some of the steps @MeredithPoor mentioned in her answer in covering your own butt regarding her performance and other employees' treatment of her in that sense. – panoptical Apr 13 '14 at 12:37

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