If you ask a human resource director to describe his or her worst nightmare, it might go a little something like this. You turn on the TV and see one of your employees getting into a verbal—and then physical—altercation with a police officer. But the dream doesn’t end there. The next thing you know, the employee is being handcuffed and put in a police car.
Through no fault of their own, that nightmare became reality for the University of Utah Hospital this summer, when a hospital nurse followed policy and refused a Salt Lake City detective’s order to draw blood from an unconscious patient.
When body camera and surveillance video of the incident was released, the story immediately went viral. Though the majority of the online backlash was aimed at the police officer and not the nurse, it was certainly not the type of media coverage the hospital was looking for.
Though such a situation may seem uncommon, it should make employers pause and think about how they protect confidential information and how their frontline employees interact with law enforcement.
“Especially in today’s world, your company could be all over the news and portrayed in a manner completely beyond your control because of something like this,” says Scott Hagen, who oversees labor and employment law at Ray Quinney & Nebeker. “Dealings with law enforcement can and should be handled discreetly in almost every situation so as to avoid the huge fiasco that ends up all over the news.”
Is your company ready to deal with the police?
“[What happened at the university] was somewhat of a unique incident, but it’s is definitely something employers need to be aware of,” says Ryan Frazier, an employment attorney with Kirton McConkie. “It may be infrequent, but that’s precisely the reason why employers don’t think about having a policy or practice in place to address such an issue.”
Even if it seems unlikely that your employees will have to interact with police officers, it’s important to prepare for such a situation.
“Frequently, employees don’t know how to address law enforcement or how far to take a situation. They need guidance from their employer as to what’s expected and what they should do under the circumstances so they can resolve the situation without it escalating,” Frazier says.
Without a formal policy on how to work with law enforcement on information requests, employees are left to figure it on their own. “Unless the employees know how to address law enforcement in such a situation, they may be at a loss as to what to do,” Franzier says. “They may, in some cases, even roll over at the sight of intimidation. It may not be that the officer is being too aggressive, it may just be that this individual has authority and a badge, and there’s an expectation that you comply with orders of law enforcement.”
Rules for engaging law enforcement
Though each company’s confidentiality policy may differ, there are some basic rules for interacting with law enforcement that apply across the board.
The first is how to begin an interaction with a police officer. “You should be cordial,” Frazier says. “Even if you disagree what the officer is trying to achieve, you don’t want to get aggressive with the officer. Stay calm, speak clearly and be pleasant.”
The next step is probably the most important. “It’s a good practice to have one person who deals with that kind of a situation—an executive, a manager or someone who can be trained on the way you ought to handle these types of situations,” says Hagen.
Once a point person has been identified, that name needs to be shared with the rest of the company.
“Let frontline employees know there is a point person and let them know not to get into a big argument with law enforcement,” Hagen says. “They want to be cooperative and responsive and let the law enforcement officer know that a designated person is going to come and represent the company. Most law enforcement officers expect that. They want to be cooperative and discreet in most situations.”
Whoever you designate to be your point person for law enforcement needs to understand what is expected of them. Though employees should cooperate with officers, they also need to know when a warrant is needed before officers can access confidential information. Employers should emphasize that while protecting that confidential information is important, it’s rarely worth going to jail for.
“The bottom line is, if it comes down to the police absolutely insisting on doing something—even if it’s not according to plan—you don’t want any employee to fall on their sword,” Hagen says. “If an officer insists on proceeding, you don’t want employees getting arrested or getting in a battle with the police.”
Should you record your interactions with law enforcement?
In a world where nearly everyone has a smartphone with a video camera, it can be tempting to film interactions with law enforcement. There are pros and cons to turning on a camera during an interaction.
“It’s a judgment call, but in most instances, I don’t think it hurts to record things,” says Ryan Frazier of Kirton McConkie. “There’s nothing that makes it illegal, at least in most situations. I think when people know they’re being recorded, they tend to act a bit better, and a video recording allows others to see what was really going on and allows them to make judgment calls about the behavior.”
On the other hand, says Scott Hagen of Ray Quinney & Nebeker, “My advice to employers would be to not encourage employees to record events like that. While it is possible that a recording could help establish exactly what happened, it also can broadcast a controversy all over the world and cause a very significant distraction in the workplace. So I think it is a net negative.”
Both Frazier and Hagen agree that relying on a company’s normal video surveillance system should be adequate.