Paid administrative leave has become a controversial and often abused practice that flies in the face of good governance. It’s presented as a way to allow investigations of alleged wrongdoing by government employees to occur without harming either the employee or the public. In reality, it is used to the detriment of both taxpayers and the employees accused of wrongdoing, and has evolved into a costly and unjust mechanism that fails taxpayers, employees, and reflects poorly on management.
In most cases, there is no benefit to taxpayers to have an employee on paid leave; in fact, the practice drains taxpayer funds. The financial burden of paying an employee who is not actively contributing to the organization falls squarely on taxpayers’ shoulders. These resources have been allocated to critical services or public welfare are diverted to maintain the salaries of individuals on leave. In essence, taxpayers’ foot the bill for an individual’s alleged misconduct. In addition, the resulting workplace vacancy often results in costly overtime to replace the worker on leave.
Even as the public bears this financial burden, for accused employees under investigation, administrative leave serves as little more than a suspended holiday with full pay. This actually rewards alleged wrongdoers (especially those with the worst work ethics).
A more sensible approach would be to move, detail, or transfer the accused employee to another worksite or shift while the investigation proceeds (assuming, of course, that this can be done without threat to fellow workers or the public). This avoids placing a black cloud of suspicion above a potentially innocent person, tamps down the rumor mill and conserves taxpayer funds. In municipalities where there is no mechanism for moving an employee to another worksite or shift, it’s important to ask why management hasn’t proposed a change in the governing contract.
From the perspective of an accused employee, paid administrative leave might initially seem a relief from the stress of an investigation. But it often comes with unintended consequences. Being placed on leave amid allegations of wrongdoing can affect one’s reputation and mental well-being. The presumption of innocence can quickly erode in the eyes of the public, causing personal and professional distress. The practice effectively imposes a form of punishment before any conclusive evidence of wrongdoing has been established, contradicting the fundamental principles of basic fairness and due process.
Finally, paid administrative leave reflects a lack of efficient management and organizational accountability. Managers often use administrative leave as a way to avoid accountability to the public, hoping the media will be satisfied with the explanation of, “The incident is under investigation and the employee is on administrative leave.” The expectation is that media interest will wane, facilitating a backroom deal away from public scrutiny.
It also indicates a failure to establish clear guidelines that should be included in the organization’s rules and regulations for handling misconduct allegations. Effective leadership should promote transparency, swift action, and employee accountability without compromising the due process rights of the accused. Reliance on paid administrative leave too often promotes exactly the opposite.
As Henry Ford once stated, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy.” Organizations must implement measures that demonstrate fairness, preserve taxpayer resources, safeguard employees’ rights, and enable effective management.
In addition to granting management the ability to transfer employees under investigation, contracts should contain language that place the alleged perpetrator on unpaid leave in cases of a felony arrest until an employment investigation occurs or the criminal proceeding is resolved. It is essential to realize that the “probable cause” standard for arrest for a felony is in line with the “just cause” threshold for an employment action. An employee could be found innocent in court under the more exacting “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard (or accept accelerated rehabilitation) but still face termination or other progressive discipline.
Paid administrative leave, intended to be a neutral ground for investigation, has morphed into a burdensome and unfair practice that fails to serve the interests of taxpayers, employees, or effective governance. It should be reserved for the rarest of employment infractions, rather than serving as a crutch for managers. Its continued use perpetuates a cycle of inefficiency and injustice.
As the New Year begins, managers should conduct an internal review and elected officials should seek review of all leave, noting the alleged infraction, length of investigation, outcome of investigation and financial impact (including funds spent on overtime to back fill the position). It is an important first step in reforming a system that serves neither the taxpaying public nor accused workers themselves.