As an employee, you may be surprised to learn that your employer is being investigated. Many different types of illegal and unethical behavior could lead to an ethics investigation at your place of employment. Some investigations are internal and involve an employer looking into a complaint by an employee or a third party.
Other investigations are conducted by federal or state law enforcement agencies and involve criminal activity. If your employer is under investigation, you may wonder how to protect yourself. Working with an experienced employment attorney can help you understand your legal options if your privacy or rights have been violated due to an ethics investigation.
Types of Ethics Investigations
There are many different causes of ethics investigations in the workplace. For example, an investigation could occur because one more person accuses the employer of violating local, New York, or federal employment laws. For example, an agency may investigate an employer after receiving complaints that the employer refuses to promote employees of a specific race while promoting other employees with the same experience and skill level.
In other cases, employers could be under investigation for retaliating against whistleblowers or employees seeking disability benefits or medical leave to which they are entitled. Businesses may be performing their own internal investigations as part of the human resources process to determine whether a claim of sexual harassment or a hostile work environment can be substantiated.
My Employer is Involved in an Ethics Investigation: Do I Need an Attorney?
If your employer is under investigation for an ethics violation, working with your attorney can help you protect yourself. Your employer may have their counsel, but the legal advice provided to your company may not benefit you. Working with your attorney ensures you have legal advice related to your rights and legal obligations, not those of your employer or another employee. An attorney can ensure the investigation is handled properly and in good faith.
If your company is doing an investigation or being investigated, your confidential information and identity may be in jeopardy. An attorney can determine whether there are any conflicts of interest and may be able to help prevent retaliation by your employer if you reported possible misconduct during the investigation. For example, if a law enforcement agency is investigating your employer and asks whether you know they have engaged in illegal activity and you say yes, your employer may retaliate against you. An employment attorney can hold your employer accountable for any violations of employment law they engage in during or after the investigation. Additionally, an attorney may be able to secure unbiased testimonies from those involved in the incidents to ensure the investigation is completed in a timely manner. Speaking to an attorney before contacting investigators can help protect yourself and your rights.
Laws Impacting Ethics Violations in New York
In 2019, the New York legislature signed additional protections against employment discrimination and harassment into law. The New York State Human Rights Law allows employees to pursue compensation from employers who discriminate against them based on membership in a protected class. Federal laws also prohibit discrimination, retaliation, harassment, and a hostile work environment.
However, New York’s laws are more protective of employees. For example, recently, New York eliminated the requirement that harassment is severe or pervasive for an employee to take action against an employer. Suppose you or another employee have been discriminated against, retaliated against, or harassed because of your membership in one or more protected classes. In that case, there may be an ethics investigation into your employer:
- National Origin
- Gender (including childbirth, pregnancy, and other related medical conditions
- Age (over 40)
- Genetic information
- Citizen status
- Military status
- Caring for close family members while in the armed service
Investigations into Harassment or Discrimination
When an employee believes that an employer has taken adverse action against them due to discrimination, there may be a discrimination ethics investigation. Job applicants can file a claim for discrimination as well as current employees. For example, suppose an employer has denied hiring an employee because they are disabled, due to their racial background, or based on membership in another protected class. In that case, they may have a claim against the employer for damages.
Generally, the human resources department will perform an initial investigation of discrimination claims. However, the investigation may be elevated, and a government agency could pursue further investigation. The process is similar for harassment investigations, including quid pro quo sexual harassment in a hostile work environment.
Investigations Related to Criminal Activity or Workplace Violence
When an employee suspects that criminal activity has occurred or workplace violence happens, law enforcement may begin investigating the business. whistleblowers are protected from retaliation when they report unethical or legal activity. Law enforcement can also protect workers who report violent or criminal activity in the workplace. In most cases, law enforcement and governmental agencies handle these investigations.
Protecting Employees During Searches or Surveillance
An investigation into a workplace ethics violation could result in employees’ rights being violated. Employers are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures and invasions of their privacy. For example, employers and law enforcement officers cannot violate wiretapping laws to investigate an ethics violation.
Employers have a legal obligation to inform employees in writing that their calls are being monitored before they do so. They still have to conduct the surveillance reasonably even if they provided notice. They also need to show that there was a legitimate business-related reason for conducting the investigation. Employees also have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Discuss Your Case With an Ethics Investigation Attorney in New Paltz, New York
If your employer is being investigated by an outside agency or conducting an internal investigation due to ethics violation claims, it is crucial that you work with an experienced attorney. HKM Employment Attorneys can help you understand your legal rights and options and protect you during the ethics and violation process.