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“Oh, what a tangled web we weave” – employee forgets his Walter Scott

October 15, 2015

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

In every organization there are employees who routinely try to game the system in both small ways and large, and HR often knows who they are. When HR gets a report from one of these employees of some sort of malfeasance, it must not just roll its eyes and do a perfunctory inquiry to make the problem go away. It must do a thorough investigation, not despite the source but because of the source.  The results may be surprising and a means to terminate the malcontent employee. 

Afram Boutros began working at Avis’s O’Hare Airport facility in 2002. He worked as a courtesy bus driver at the airport. His job involved driving customers from the airport to Avis’s rental-car lot and back again, and also assisting customers with their luggage. On the evening of May 27, 2008, Boutros was driving an empty courtesy bus from the rental-car lot to the airport when the on-board fire extinguisher fell off its bracket and sprayed fire-suppressant powder inside the bus.

Boutros drove the bus back to Avis’s facility and informed his shift manager, Trujillo, of the accident. He told Trujillo that a customer knocked the extinguisher over and it sprayed fire suppressant next to the driver’s seat. Seeing a small amount of powder suppressant near the driver’s seat, Trujillo instructed Boutros to take the bus to Avis’s mechanic shop for cleaning. If no mechanics were available, Boutros was to take the bus out of service and use a different one for the remainder of his shift.

If Boutros had done what he was told to do, that would have been the end of the story. But he didn’t.  Instead he met up with another shift manager, Foster, and told him that the extinguisher had fallen on its own (not that a customer knocked it over) and sprayed powder on his pants and face (not next to the driver’s seat). He claimed that the fire suppressant powder caused him to cough and made it difficult to breathe. He also expressed concern about his exposure to chemicals.  Foster also instructed Boutros to have a mechanic clean the bus. Boutros said there were no mechanics available and that he had already cleaned the bus himself. When asked about medical assistance, Boutros declined any. 

The next day, Boutros requested medical attention. Avis sent him to a health clinic, from where he then  went to the emergency room. Boutros claimed that the clinic doctors sent him to the hospital because fire-extinguisher chemicals can cause cancer. Boutros remained off work for three days and filed a workers’ compensation claim on the incident.

This was not the first time Boutros sought assistance for questionable medical claims.  Boutros had once complained about an odd “hugging incident” involving Trujillo, who explained that he gave Boutros a hug because he was having a bad day.  Boutros complained the hug caused serious damage to his kidneys.  Trujillo was disciplined for violating the company’s policy against inappropriate touching. 

Avis opened an investigation of Boutros’ claims and found much evidence to contradict Boutros’ claims.  HR found records that showed that several mechanics were on duty and available to clean the bus;  doctors at the clinic denied ever telling him to go to the emergency room due to  cancer concerns; a review of the bus showed that the bracket holding the extinguisher in place showed no signs of rust or disrepair; finally, HR asked the fire-extinguisher company representative to review the situation estimate how much spray he thought was released. Not much, came back his report.

Boutros later claimed during the investigation that a coworker had seen him vomiting. The coworker denied it.  

Boutros had spun a tangled web of deceit that nevertheless came apart quite readily. Avis initially suspended him and later terminated him for dishonesty and insubordination (for failing to follow two supervisor’s orders to have mechanics clean the bus that he cleaned himself). Predictably, Boutros then sued Avis for national origin and religious discrimination and for a hostile environment. Boutros is a native of Lebanon, a Christian, and an ethnic Assyrian; he claimed that his supervisors and coworkers perceived him to be Arab and Muslim. 

Juries are not stupid, especially when the facts are clear. It ruled in favor of Avis. Boutros appealed and lost.  In fact, Boutros apparently couldn’t help himself; on appeal, he misrepresented a number of key elements of his appeal.  The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, instead of dismissing the appeal on procedural grounds, ruled on the merits of the appeal, finding against Boutros in all counts. 

The takeaway from this case is that HR should never make assumptions about an employee’s complaint, but instead investigate thoroughly.  If the employee is like Boutros, the investigation will find its way to the truth, and the well-documented investigation will hold up in court.  Even a jury can smell out a fraudster.  The key, though, is a thorough and well-documented investigation. 

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