Should I Suspend an Employee While I Investigate?

by Evil HR Lady on May 10, 2019

A patient has accused one of our employees of a HIPAA violation. The patient says the employee looked up her medical records and shared the information with her neighbor. We are, of course, conducting an investigation, but this is our first HIPAA investigation, so we’re not sure what to do while it occurs.

Should the employee be suspended while we investigate? Should we withhold her patient access? Should she be paid? Naturally, if we find that she did do this, she’ll be fired. But, what if she didn’t? Do we apologize? And what do we do about the patient who accused her in the first place?

To read my answer, click here: Should I Suspend an Employee While I Investigate?

Leave your own answer in the comments!

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

grannybunny May 10, 2019 at 1:36 pm

I have a problem with suspending the accused employee WITHOUT PAY, pending the investigation. Investigations frequently take longer than anticipated, especially ones where — as here — non-employee witnesses will need to be interviewed, including the complaining patient and her neighbor. That seems to be presuming guilt; what if the employee is totally innocent? Will the patient also be “suspended” — denied medical services — during the investigation?

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Kathy May 10, 2019 at 4:37 pm

At the bottom of the medical industry food chain, some people are paid barely enough to survive. If this is such a person, it would be bad to leave her without groceries and rent money for a month of investigation while saying that she’s presumed innocent. If she is a surgeon that might not be such a big concern.

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Kim May 10, 2019 at 4:43 pm

Wow, guilty until proven innocent. While I totally think investigations should occur, suspending without pay is rather awful. If I was a long-time employee, loyal to my company, and received a false claim and was treated like this I would be looking for a new job. That is treating someone so horribly. I can’t believe this is the advice.

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jdgalt May 10, 2019 at 5:10 pm

Totally agree — and if the employee is innocent, the company should cooperate with her to sue the liar.

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Dan May 10, 2019 at 5:51 pm

I can’t get on board with this advice either. Telling someone not to come to work and not paying them certainly does not communicate a presumption of innocence. Actions speak louder than words, you know? Suspend then with pay if you must.

And for the love of God, for allegations this serious, why is the letter writer writing to an internet advice columnist? They should be consulting a lawyt, and Suzanne should know that.

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Dorothy May 10, 2019 at 6:05 pm

I spent my career in a union shop with a very active, militant union. And our suspensions pending investigation were ALWAYS without pay. If the employee was exonerated, the pay was given for the suspension period. If the employee was subsequently fired for cause, no pay was given for the suspension period. If discipline other than termination was administered, withholding pay for some or all of the suspension period was often part of the discipline.

If the employee was guilty and wasn’t terminated the union automatically grieved for the entire amount of pay. Those cases were negotiated on an individual basis.

The worker in this case isn’t “guilty until proven innocent”. She’s under investigation. And I don’t see why this case should take more than a couple days to investigate: talk to Legal, talk to the employee and her licensing authority, talk to the patient, come to a conclusion. There’s bound to be some he-said-she-said. But that’s par for the course in these cases.

As for the patient lying — unless there’s some personal animosity there, Why? Sure, it’s possible. But that doesn’t mean this issue should be brushed off.

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Jenny Boxer May 10, 2019 at 6:45 pm

I’ve worked in HR for over 30 years. Unless it was a claim for egregious or severe misconduct ( as opposed to possible bad judgment, which is what this is), I would not suspend the employee.

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SunnyDay May 10, 2019 at 8:59 pm

Agreed. If an employee was accused of theft or abuse then I would consider suspension. This is a case where an employee possibly looked in a confidential file and spoke about it. There is no threat to patient or staff safety. There is no threat to property. If the accusation was that the employee was looking into multiple records, stealing soc security #s and selling them, then the employee would need to be removed.
At this point, the accusation is just gossip. I’d hate to work at a facility where every time a patient claims this a nurse/surgeon/tech is suspended. Investigate while the employee is working. If there is credible evidence, then suspend the employee while the rest of the investigation continues. Until that point, let the employee continue working.

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Evil HR Lady May 10, 2019 at 9:00 pm

HIPAA is very different than normal workplace problems. The facility can face huge fines for HIPAA violations and a lot of places fire for every HIPAA violation–no matter how small.

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Goober May 12, 2019 at 10:43 pm

Very true, but not the part people are disagreeing with. Until the investigation is complete, nobody can say there has *been* a violation.

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Ashley K May 10, 2019 at 7:21 pm

I am disheartened to hear your advise they suspend an employee without pay while conducting the investigation. Employees should be kept whole, with pay an benefits, until you can substantiate misconduct.

It is also notable that in most states an unpaid suspension creates a work separation issue and is typically grounds to file for unemployment benefits.

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Evil HR Lady May 10, 2019 at 8:59 pm

Remember: most investigations will last no more than 3 days. It would have to be timed just right for the employee to miss any money on a paycheck–if they are cleared.

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Maude May 10, 2019 at 10:33 pm

I’m still with the others in disagreeing with your advice on this one. If the company’s position is that three days is not that big a deal, then they should pay the employee as a cost of doing business. It is good for morale in general in addition to assuming innocence until proven guilty. Also, as someone who has conducted investigations, it can take well over three days due to many unforeseen reasons.

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Goober May 12, 2019 at 10:42 pm

If it’s not a big deal when it’s somebody else’s money, it’s not a big deal when it’s your money, either. No arguments that it has to be investigated, and that HIPAA violations are a huge problem, or even suspending the employee while the investigation is going on, but like everyone else, suspending without pay really leaves a bad taste.

Were I the employee, I would patiently wait to be exonerated, then quit.

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.. Kat.. May 13, 2019 at 10:01 am

Some thoughts:

If you are going to suspend someone without pay, please do the investigation promptly. And if you find the employee innocent, make sure coworkers know that they were cleared of all wrongdoing. Also, if innocent, I think you should pay the employee the wages they lost.

I am a nurse. One good thing about healthcare records going on computers is that you can easily track who accesses what. So it is easy to tell whether someone accessed records inappropriately.

Make sure you are giving your employees training on HIPAA, patient privacy, and professional conduct.

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HR Jeanne May 13, 2019 at 4:12 pm

Remember that the rest of your team is watching. If you are investigating someone and choose not to pay them, this will get around, whether you want it to or not. This is a bad practice. It just is. No matter what you say, you are choosing to assume someone is guilty until proven innocent, and your other employees will see it that way. Morale will definitely take a hit.

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