Immunity Promises in Investigations: A Whole New Ball Game?

Several years ago, a safety incident occurred at one of my former employer’s sites. In wanting to get to the bottom of the problem (a worthy goal of any investigation), the worker most closely involved said he would share what he knew in exchange for immunity. Incredibly, the site leadership granted his immunity request, after which he gladly told them he had broken a safety rule and the incident resulted.

This became an object lesson when I trained incident investigation strategy. Simply put, if someone in the investigation is asking for immunity from punishment, they have already told you most of what you need to know. I will describe how I recommended handling the situation later.

This issue suddenly became front and center in the wake of the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal in Major League Baseball. Unbelievably, the head of a multi-billion dollar operation made the same foolish mistake an in-over-their-head new leader made at my site.

It is clear from every angle that the players themselves were the initiators and perpetrators of a scheme to use illegal (read, technological) means to capture an opposing catcher’s pitch selection signs and communicate them to hitters. Any hitter knowing what pitch is coming has a distinct advantage. And Houston walked away with the 2017 World Series title, apparently as a result.

I am not going to guess how much the scheme helped Houston win, nor am I going to discuss the incredibly lame “apology” issued by the Astros’ owner. I am going to focus on the Office of the Commissioner and the actions at the heart of the investigation.

During the investigation, the Commissioner of Baseball granted the players immunity from sanction in exchange for their testimony. Usually, in judicial proceedings, you grant immunity to one individual so that you can reel in a bigger fish, as it were. You don’t grant immunity when you are unsure who’s responsible and to what degree.

But that is what the Commissioner did. He gave the players immunity, after which they explained their techniques. And since the players had immunity, the Commissioner had to levy the punishment on the team’s general manager and field manager, who had little to no influence or knowledge of the scheme. Oh, and the team was fined $5 million and lost some draft picks. A small price for a title.

And as spring training ramps up for the 2020 baseball season, fans are outraged that the players–the central characters in the biggest scandal in baseball in a century–had nothing at all happen to them. Only one player suffered any fallout, a former player (Carlos Beltran) who lost his new gig as manager of the New York Mets.

So How Do You Handle an Immunity Request?

No one asks for immunity unless they need it. If you are investigating a workplace incident and an interviewee asks for immunity, you are correct to suspect you have the guilty party. Here is what I recommended to my investigation classes:

As soon as someone asks for immunity, inform them that the interview is over. Also let them know that you have plenty of means at your disposal to determine what took place and who was at fault. As you adjourn the meeting, inform the worker that their cooperation or lack of cooperation with the investigation will be factored into any discipline that results from the investigation. And invite the employee to meet with you at a later time, by which time they should be more willing to come clean. 

Too often I have seen situations where the employee responsible for an incident got off scot-free while their supervisor or lead person was punished. The persons most directly responsible for misconduct should be the ones most directly impacted. That’s the basic principle of fairness.

About Tim James "Mr. Procedure"

A communicator; all-purpose capability in writing, designing and presenting training for all facets of organizational function. While my focus has been manufacturing, my training/development experience includes supervisory and lead person development, audit processes, continuous improvement and Lean, and Quality Management System implementation.
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