In the Trenches: Acme's way of dealing with terrorism hoax leaves much to be desired

April 19, 2007
Acme accuses and eventually fires an employee for engineering a terrorist hoax against the company based on scant evidence. The employee sues. Read about the details and remember, only the names are changed to protect the innocent.

Bob Shishka, an educated Eastern European émigré, found a good job as an inside sales representative with Acme’s back-office group. His work team had its base of operations in a two-story building in the far suburbs that it shared with Acme’s customer service center. Customer demand was strong, commissions were healthy, and Bob made hay while the sun shone — at the expense of having a life outside the office. It was time, he thought, to reconnect with the real world. On the first really nice spring day, Bob was out of the office, enjoying one of the many unused vacation days he carried over from last year.

Meanwhile, back at the office, it was as busy as ever. About 10:30 a.m., Kelly Greene, the service center receptionist, answered yet another of an endless stream of phone calls. She nearly panicked when she realized this one was a bomb threat. The caller hung up after only 15 seconds. Kelly immediately notified Acme’s security team and called the local police department. The alarm sounded, the building was evacuated and, for nearly three hours, the police bomb squad searched for, but failed to find, any explosive device.

Fifteen emotional seconds wasn’t nearly enough to say for sure, but Kelly was convinced that the person who made the threat had a heavy accent, possibly Russian or Slavic, and was middle-aged. She also had an uneasy feeling the caller worked for Acme because the call came in on an unpublished phone number that was used primarily by Acme’s field service technicians.

After being questioned by the detectives, Kelly basked in the warmth of her 15 minutes of fame. She repeated her story to anyone who asked, and even to those who didn’t. Once her story hit the grapevine, the Acme speculation machine went into overdrive. Clay Lizborne, the sales director, even prepared a list of Acme employees who spoke with any kind of a foreign accent. Naturally, Bob’s name was on the list. That’s when people started wondering.

When Bob returned to the office, he seemed genuinely surprised to hear about the day-old excitement, even though the matter was covered extensively on the evening newscasts. He was puzzled by how standoffish his coworkers seemed, but he chalked it up to nerves rubbed raw by working for a company that was the target of a bomb scare.

Bob was in his office dialing for dollars when the fire alarm sounded again and employees scrambled for the exits. Another receptionist had received another 12-second bomb threat; the building was evacuated and searched anew. Once again, the police found nothing. Neither the police nor the local phone company was able to trace either threatening call. But, they were keeping an eye or two on Bob and the other people with the foreign-sounding names on that Acme list.

On Friday of the following week, an anonymous male placed two calls to 911. In the early-morning call, he said that Roy al Jaili, an Acme employee, was planning to bomb the Acme building. He further identified Roy as being an Arab between 30- and 40-years-old. The second call, just before lunch, came from a male who claimed that this Roy character was planning to detonate his device later that afternoon. This time, though, the 911 system not only recorded the call, but revealed that it had come from a cell phone.

There was no record of Acme ever having an employee named Roy al Jaili. The police provided a tape of the 911 calls. Neither Acme’s managers nor the two receptionists could identify the voice on the tape. Both receptionists doubted that the taped voice was the same one they’d heard earlier. But, they noted that Bob always carried a cell phone, even though his workstation had a standard phone.

Clay played the 911 tape for his sales executives, most of whom identified the voice as Bob’s. They had, after all, worked with him and heard him speaking on the phone many times. Those who were sure of their assessment were asked to prepare and sign memos indicating they were confident it was Bob’s voice they heard on the tape.

When Bob returned to work on Monday morning, Clay and Hilda Garde, Acme’s now frazzled security chief, called him in for a meeting. Hilda’s tone was confrontational and intimidating. She told Bob that they had traced the 911 calls to his cell phone, that the voice on the tape was that of a middle-aged Slavic male, and Acme knew he was the person making the bomb threats, and that Bob should now explain why he had done it. Bob said he had no idea what she was talking about. He repeatedly denied any involvement in the matter. He tried to remain patient and said that he could prove he didn’t make the calls. Hilda merely responded that this was a disciplinary proceeding. As if on cue, Clay opened a file folder, spread Bob’s termination papers on the table, and told him that he was fired as of that minute.
In the time-honored tradition of previous Acme employees chronicled here, Bob filed suit against his former employer with claims of race discrimination and age discrimination. As an aside, after he was fired, the police traced the source of the 911 cell phone calls and neither led back to Bob Shishka.

How could this situation have been avoided? Should employees be allowed to use personal cell phones at the office? What would be a sensible procedure to follow if you suspect a coworker of criminal activity? Does the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” apply to private industry? What constitutes sufficient proof that the taped caller was actually Bob? Should Bob been afforded the chance to make his case before termination?

An attorney says:

Employers, whose management personnel are just as human as the rest of us, sometimes jump to conclusions based on less than complete information. That doesn’t, however, necessarily translate to a case of employment discrimination.

The bomb threats, understandably, scared Acme. In its haste to find a scapegoat, Acme acted prematurely in terminating Bob. In the situation Acme found itself, the prudent course of action would have been to suspend Bob pending investigation. When the police determined that the 911 cell phone calls didn’t come from his phone, Bob could have been reinstated and no permanent damage would have been done.

While Bob may have wished for an opportunity to remain employed until convicted, that is, be considered innocent until proven guilty, this criminal standard doesn’t apply in the civil world or in the employment context. And unless Bob can show that Acme treated a similarly situated employee of a different race and under the age of 40 more favorably than him, Bob is not likely to prevail against the company in his suit.

Merely because Acme might prevail in the suit Bob has filed does not necessarily mean that Acme will “win.” Litigation is very expensive and highly disruptive. Those managers most involved in a lawsuit usually begin to take it personally, and many fear for their personal reputations and careers, if not for their own pocketbooks.

Employees often file lawsuits because they feel they haven’t been treated “fairly.” While no law mandates “fair” treatment of employees, an employer that treats employees in an equitable manner is less likely to be sued than one that doesn’t.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]

A corporate consultant says:

Given the sensitivities attendant to 9/11, everything that happened after the bomb threat at Acme was completely predictable. As such, Acme should have been more proactive in working to get ahead of the situation. Here's what I believe Acme should have done.

Immediately after the first bomb threat, Acme should have asked the police to speak to all employees to explain what they should and shouldn’t be doing in the wake of the threat. A hotline should have been established, staffed by experienced security personnel, so employees could express concerns and ask questions. Key personnel and those directly involved in the threat should have been taken aside and counseled not to worsen the situation with gossip or other inflammatory behavior. If, despite this counseling, Clay still made a list of employees with heavily accented speech, Acme should have offered round-the-clock protection to everyone on Clay's list, increased the on-site security and repeated cautions to all employees.

Simultaneously, an Acme executive and a security expert should have gone to Bob's home (and the home of any other employee on Clay's list who was off that day) and waited for him to return. After giving Bob the details about the bomb threat, the Acme executive should have explained that the officer was there for Bob's protection but would leave if Bob wished, that Acme had complete confidence in Bob's innocence, and that they were concerned for his safety given post 9/11 sensitivities. The Acme executive should then have expressed a desire to help Bob prove his innocence, asking that he suggest how Acme could assist.

Assuming his innocence, Bob would likely have chosen to be proactive in establishing his innocence by giving Acme his cell phone for testing and offering to participate in a speech recognition test.

This approach would have favorably positioned Acme as Bob's protector, without failing in their fiduciary responsibility to protect other Acme employees, and would also have provided some indication of Bob's guilt or innocence.

It’s worth noting that, as with other types of foreseeable crises, the time to develop response strategies is before the crisis happens. In this environment of terrorism, it's reasonable to anticipate that something may one day threaten the safety of any organization, so it's important to plan in advance as much as possible. Evacuation plans and fire drills aren't enough. Because the threats can come from within a company, it's important to increase the scrutiny in our hiring practices. And because the threats could endanger innocent employees of diverse backgrounds, it's also important to establish methods to secure their safety. By so doing, we minimize the likelihood of cases like this one.

Francie Dalton
Dalton Alliances Inc.
(410) 715-0484
[email protected]

An academician says:

Acme is a decade behind in understanding the process for dealing with threats. Since 9/11, the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) or the FBI has the lead in the investigations of real or not-so-real threats.

Who does what depends a lot on what Acme produces. If Acme’s products are critical to America’s national security, the JTTF will probably take the lead. However, if Acme makes the rubber duckies that I play with in my bath tub, the FBI probably will take the lead, and may pass it on to the local police if it doesn’t appear too serious.

In any case, whomever takes the lead, whether the JTTF, FBI or local police, will not (emphasize not) want Acme’s sales function or Acme’s security involved. They’ll ask Acme to keep out of the investigation unless specifically asked for information. Thus, Clay’s attempts to find the caller, and Hilda’s (false) charges were totally inappropriate and a violation of standard procedure. They provide classic examples of why the FBI wouldn’t want Acme personnel involved.

The other questions asked in this case assume that this is an Acme problem. It isn’t. This is an FBI or JTTF problem and Acme should stop trying to figure out if Bob did it, and then what to do about it.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

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