Asset Protection is the name of AT&T’s corporate security arm. They are responsible for protecting the physical assets of AT&T, including information assets like customer data, etc. Asset Protection is also charged with investigating wrongdoing at AT&T including violations of AT&T’s Code of Business Conduct (COBC). AP investigators are sort of the “boogie man” of both craft and management and their completed investigations go straight to the director-level of the respective organizations. Sometimes, as in my case, an AP case is also sent to the Vice President of Labor Relations. Interfering with or attempting to impede an AP investigation is a violation of the COBC, even if you are found “not guilty” of whatever offense that is being investigated. It is not permitted for employees, even management, to conduct their own investigations in place of Asset Protection; suspected violations of the COBC must be reported to AP or discipline may result (this rule does not apply to union stewards or union investigations).
Relatively few AT&T employees (or stewards) find themselves in an AP interview and it can be intimidating experience. Because the “real” job of Asset Protection is that of corporate cop and that is their skill-set, they require a manager from the same department as the interviewee to stand by in case the investigator needs any technical or department-specific information obtained or corroborated. (The observant steward will note that the manager also will look intimidated! This is normal because most of them have guilty consciences.) It doesn’t have to be intimidating for a union steward or the member she is assisting, especially if you know your rights and assert them often. Here’s some lessons learned from my experiences.
Focus on the right manager
If Asset Protection is involved in an interview, they are the authority in the interview, not any department manager in the room! All managers at AT&T are required to assist AP and follow their directives in an investigation. So, address issues of harassment, intimidation, clarification or other Weingarten concerns to the AP investigator. So, too, any objection about process or attendees, such as your member’s supervisor being present during the interview. Example: I sat in on AP interview regarding employee behavior. The department-manager that the AP investigator brought to the interview was the employee’s second-level supervisor, between whom existed a mutual loathing. When I pointed out to the AP investigator that the stress of facing this particular manager would skew his reactions to the questions, the AP investigator booted the second-level (who had driven in an hour on a Saturday morning to “surprise” the hated employee). Here’s some things stewards should think about when serving as a representative in these important interviews:
This is likely to be a very important Weingarten meeting; stewards should be diligent in exercising their rights and responsibilities. Including:
- Find out the purpose of the meeting and the subject of the investigation i.e. customer mistreat, theft, etc. Make the AP investigator be specific and document if she is too vague for review of additional grievances or NLRB charges.
- Insist on your right to private consultation before the meeting and if necessary, during the meeting if the meeting becomes hostile or new information develops from management that requires new advice to the member
- Ask the investigator to clarify any questions your member does not understand; your member should be advised to tap you or otherwise indicate his lack of understanding. Document such instances in your notes
- Protect your member from harassment. Your member is likely and reasonably nervous and is concentrating on carefully, accurately answering management’s questions. It is your job to take the long view and ensure that the notes are accurate and that management is not harassing your member by putting words in their mouth. You have the right to interrupt and prevent this harassment; however, do excuse the member while you have this conversation with the AP investigator (Remember: It is AP’s investigation, not the department’s.). Document the conversation and outcome.
- At the conclusion of the interview, stewards have the right to provide additional information to the AP investigator. This can include any information relevant to the investigation such as management animus towards the employee; management’s failure to train on relevant policies (i.e. 10-minute COBC “training”); or other mitigating information
Notes are vital
Notes are a steward’s greatest weapon. Especially important are the notes taken during the investigatory interview. Notes are often admissible in arbitrations, NLRB proceedings and OSHA hearings. Often considered hearsay, detailed notes are often allowed into the official record. They can be used to refresh witness testimony while on the stand: hell, just taking managers’ words down in front of them frequently gets them thinking about their word choices! Notes should always be taken for every part of the interview; including your discussions with management before and after the employee is in the room. Notes should include:
- Names of all attendees
- Objections to any attendees. If any other manager than an AP investigator participates in the interview, object and carefully document. At this point, the investigation is the sole province of Asset Protection; managers are usually instructed to ask questions through the AP investigator.
- Current weather conditions at meeting location (trust me, arbitrators and administrative law judges love this and it lends credibility to your testimony when they are used)
- Document start time, stop time and each time there is a recess to advise your member.
- Your subjective impressions of the fairness of the interview, management’s demeanor, etc. These matter when you recall them on the stand. Face it, stewards: You are subject-matter-experts on bad boss behavior, whether you are aware of it or not! (Judges recognize this during important NLRB hearings)
Remember: Stewards are the equal of management when performing their duties as stewards. If you need to catch up on the notes, the other side should respect that. If AP objects, simply inform them that you are going to have the member write down each AP question in order to ensure the member’s accuracy before answering!
Advise the member
No employee enjoys these interviews. You can help your member by keeping your instructions short and easy to remember. Remind your member that you are there to be on their side and protect their rights. They will be nervous, especially if they don’t think they did anything wrong
Tell them what management says is the subject of the investigation. They need to know and you need them to fill you in on the situation. Even in “slam-dunk” situations where the member admits guilt, there are often mitigating circumstances that can be gleaned from the interview that management is bound under just cause to consider; these should be of course be documented.
After you discuss the investigation with the member and before questioning, give them some advice:
- Answer the questions with the truth
- Less is more. Don’t speculate on questions. If the member can’t remember, doesn’t know, or isn’t sure, that is perfectly fine to answer just that way (if it’s true!)
- Management thinks they are pretty crafty and will sit there staring at your member after they answer; sometimes for a seeming eternity. This is a common management trick and the member should be prepared to sit silently after their answer. Often the interviewee feels an irresistible impulse to fill the silence and this should be avoided.
- Never, ever sign the Asset Protection statement at the end of your interview!
I mean it. When the interview is done, the AP investigator will boot you and the employee from the room and type your member’s “statement.” Your member does not have to sign it, and should not sign it. In fact, instruct your member to not even look at it, read it or correct it. Why? Because your member’s signature on that document will be used by management against your member in later proceedings like arbitration or an NLRB hearing. You or your member should simply point out that those are AP’s notes, not his statement and he does not wish to sign off on their accuracy. Remember, your member is not in the interview voluntarily but at management’s direction.
Asset Protection may only obtain voluntary signatures to their notes. But, keep in mind that AP investigators are also managers and this means that they hate when employees exercise their rights in the workplace. They may try to persuade your member that he has to sign the “statement.” Stewards should intervene in this and ask the AP investigator if the steward needs to keep documenting unlawful coercion against your member (remember, notes are your weapon) – then document the coercion.
Below is the “statement” Asset Protection wanted me to sign (note the first line, “freely and voluntarily!”). The subject of the investigation was a clumsy attempt by Area Manager Ted Brash and some of his managers to use Asset Protection to terminate me for tampering with the GPS device in my work-vehicle. l refused to sign it and the handwritten notes at the bottom of the statement are those of Asset Protection Investigator Jody Vilk.