We all recall the myth of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Washington told his father that he could not tell a lie and that he had in fact tried to chop down his father’s cherry tree. His father then praised young George and embraced him for his honesty. 

A friend recently relayed to me his exasperation with his daughter’s prep school. It seems the student engaged in some teen-aged antics with a few classmates, and after admitting her involvement, was expelled from school. However, her classmates, who denied involvement, were not punished because the school could not prove their complicity. Surely the school has a right to discipline as it deems proper, but are they sending the right message to the student who cooperates in an investigation and is honest about her commission of a minor transgression?

Employment attorneys and human resources professionals are often asked to investigate more serious matters involving whistleblower claims, sexual harassment charges, and other allegations regarding questionable workplace conduct. In so doing, we need to rely on the cooperation and candor of employees who may be reluctant to assist us. Employees who may have relevant information often fear retaliation either from the company or from colleagues. That may be easily addressed by reminding witnesses of your company’s policy against retaliation.

More challenging to deal with is the employee who may be a bad actor or who may have witnessed the bad acts but who refuses to cooperate. The shrewd employee may know that you have no way to connect him to any misconduct without his cooperation. What are you left to do? Some conduct, such as sexual harassment and theft, may be inexcusable and unforgivable. But in other situations, it may be more important to understand what happened than to punish those involved. Demonstrating that honesty does not necessarily result in severe punishment may foster the transparency and cooperation you may need to protect employees and the company. We should encourage employees to feel a part of the process and invested in the well being of the company. So, next time you’re faced with a reluctant witness, think about your real goal: punishment at all costs or finding the truth and addressing it in an appropriate and constructive manner. Not every chopped Cherry Tree needs to end in punishment.