In deciding whether an employee complaint rises to the level of alleged illegal activity or company policy violations, employers should interpret the incoming complaint very broadly and err on the conservative side by investigating anything that comes remotely close to illegal activity or company policy violations—especially if the allegations are against a supervisor (due to the employer’s risk of strict liability).

What may seem initially to be an innocuous or petty complaint—which perhaps does not use the magical words “harassment,” “discrimination,” or “accommodation”—could actually be a hidden landmine that would have been discovered earlier if the company had conducted at least a preliminary investigation.

If an employer does not investigate and rule out, based on the facts, potentially illegal conduct early on, e.g., by documenting admissions or denials from the claimant in an investigative interview, a plaintiff’s attorney who surfaces later could create the illusion of some form of illegality retroactively, when a lawsuit is filed.  Prudent employers nail down all of the facts in writing at the outset, or otherwise face a changing story.