June 21, 20100 – It is not uncommon today for employers to hire a so-called “independent” law firm to “investigate” complaints of bullying and discrimination.
Earlier this year, National Public Radio justified its controversial dismissal of commentator Juan Williams on a supposedly independent investigation by a DC law firm paid by NCR. Williams had made inane comments in his role as a talking head about his fear of individuals dressed in Muslim garb on planes. In the backlash over Williams’ dismissal, NPR Chief Executive Officer Vivian Schiller lost her job.
At that time, I issued a challenge that, alas, drew no takers:
Does anyone know of a so-called independent review by a law firm that found the employer was completely un-justified in its actions (and thus potentially liable for serious monetary damages). I suspect that would be the last time said firm was hired to do an independent investigation. Frankly, I’m no fan of Juan Williams but come on NPR … Adopt clear policies and processes for NPR employees and apply them uniformly.
Now, Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, are blaming a growing international scandal involving phone hacking and police payoffs on advice from Harbottle & Lewis, former counsel to News International, its U.K. subsidiary. The company has publicly accused Harbottle of botching an initial investigation into the events at the heart of scandal. Harbottle refutes the accusation. News International reportedly denied Harbottle’s request to waive client confidentiality that the firm said would clarify its role in the controversy.
As they say, hindsight is 20-20. However, it seems obvious that the best way for employers to handle future complaints is to act before the problem occurs. Pro-actively adopt clear, ethical, and fair policies and enforce these policies uniformly, from the office of chief executive to the janitorial staff.
In this country, anyway, it’s not easy to blame it on the lawyer or the law firm. A lawyer can break lawyer-client confidentiality”to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client, to establish a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the client was involved, or to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client … ” ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.6 .