Workplace investigation alert: Don’t interrogate your employees

Yesterday’s New York Times had a fascinating article about employee confessions.  It focused on an internal investigation conducted by a workplace investigator at AutoZone, the car parts and accessories retailer.  The investigator approached then-employee Chris Polston and asked for help investigating a theft.  Mr. Polston said sure, he was happy to help.  He did not expect what happened next: the investigator kept him in an overstock room for over two hours, repeatedly accusing him of stealing auto parts and insisting he confess.  Mr. Polston denied having stolen anything, but the investigator would not be deterred.  He pointed to a DVD that he said contained definitive proof against Mr. Polston (this was a lie).  He told Mr. Polston he was not allowed to leave the room until he confessed, but that once he did, everything would be fine and he would keep his job.  Frustrated to the point of exhaustion, Mr. Polston finally fessed up to not paying for a candy bar and a soda.  This so-called confession was not even true.  He was just trying to say something that would stop the interrogation.  The next day, he was fired for allegedly stealing candy and soda.

Mr. Polston is now suing AutoZone and the investigator.  He’s not the first.  In the past few years, several lawsuits have been filed against AutoZone and other retail giants based on false confessions.  This type of interrogation has actually become somewhat commonplace in the retail world where concerns about theft abound.  From the perspective of a workplace investigator, this is a big fat DON’T.  I would think it would go without saying, but apparently not.  Mr. Polston’s case heads to a jury trial in Houston this summer.  I know how I’d lean if I were on his jury.

As workplace investigators, we are never trying to play “gotcha.”  We should treat all witnesses with respect and dignity.  The integrity of the investigation process demands at least this much.