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  • Writer's pictureThe Shields Group

When Do Your Connections Hurt You?

Written by Sasha Begovic and Jenna Edde

If you watch the news or are a fan of college football, it is likely that you saw the Urban Meyer-Zach Smith case play out on the public stage. When OSU football coach Urban Meyer was accused of failure to take sufficient management action relating to former assistant coach Zach Smith’s misconduct, the whole country took notice due to the public nature of college football. Football, especially college football, is our nation’s most popular sport and is a big-time money maker for universities. 

According to My Dayton Daily News, "Ohio State’s football program generates nearly $90 million per year for the athletic department and has been valued by one news outlet as high as $1 billion, making it a valuable revenue generator for the university".

The big question was why did Urban Meyer not come forward when he heard that Assistant Coach Zack Smith abused his wife? Was is that he was trying to turn a blind eye and look out for the University and football team’s success and reputation? Or was there another reason….

Meyer admitted that his relationship with Zach Smith's grandfather, the late Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, might have clouded his judgment. "(Bruce) was my mentor, like a father to me (and it) likely impacted how I treated Zach over the years," Meyer said.

Our society puts immeasurable pressure on making and managing “connections”. The “It’s not what you do, but who you know” mentality. The truth is, sometimes your connections can actually hurt you. We believe that this case, while played out in public, is a perfect example of something that happens universally among employers out of the public eye. The repercussions for a situation like this can be disastrous, so what do you do as an employer to make sure you never get into these deep waters? 

No employer would invite a public investigation to determine any wrongdoing within their employment relationships. Such investigations are costly, not only monetarily, but in terms of time and effort. The means of avoiding such investigation are to take steps early in the process – at the point where the potential conflict of interest arises. By failing to address these conflicts of interest an employer may unwittingly be sowing the seed of future conflict.

Many employers and employees develop close personal connections with their coworkers. These connections are what solidify individuals into a team with shared values and goals. Good employers create and maintain rules of decorum that all employees are expected to adhere to, but what is the result when an employer finds themselves having to decide between two accounts of the same set of events?

Our judicial system demands objectivity, without objectivity the public would never be certain of a fair outcome. Judicial objectivity is critical in ensuring that the law is implemented fairly and uniformly. This objectivity is the backbone of rule implementation and it is this very objectivity that is called into question when any relationship serves to challenge the uniform application of any set of rules.

Objectivity may seem beyond reach; after all, we are all inherently subjective beings. We are urged to think critically, but there is not a single adult that does not possess their own unique set of prejudices and affections.

However, these prejudices, while not unique, differ in magnitude across the spectrum of personal and professional relationships. You are likely not in the best position to judge your own capacity for objectivity. In many ways, you are the worst judge of your own ability to look beyond your preconceptions. The general rule that will serve in most instances – if a concern is raised, have a neutral party conduct the investigation. Turning a blind eye or hoping that the problem will resolve itself is typically not the most prudent course of action. What does a prudent employer do when a trusted member of their staff is accused of wrongdoing?

The answer is deceptively simple, but adherence is often far more difficult call.

An employer’s approach should include creating and implementing a decision tree and reporting system by considering selection criteria relevant to potential investigators before conflict arises. The most obvious choice is typically to begin with the tools already available – the Human Resources Department. These individuals typically have a head start with respect to managing internal conflict, and unless there is the possibility of bias, should be the default choice.

If an employer does not have a Human Resources Department, they may select individuals who possess the requisite skillset to form an investigation committee. The selection criteria may differ from employer to employer, however steps must be taken to ensure avoidance of potential conflict wherever possible.

If there are not suitable employees available or if the potential conflict of interest is sufficiently widespread, the employer should consider a Third Party Workplace Complaint Investigator.

The decision of whether to utilize such an external agency is complex and should take into consideration the magnitude of the conduct complained in comparison to the relevant expense.

They critical component of all three avenues is consistency. The procedures put in place should be applied uniformly and apply to all career levels. The benefit of such a system is that if an employer finds themselves in the public view, they are in the position of explaining an affirmative response and will likely not be perceived as providing excuses for inactivity. In the age of social media, which position would you rather find yourself facing?


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