Why it is important to understand proximate versus ultimate causes in HR

by Michael Haberman on August 18, 2014 · 1 comment


It is important to understand the proximate and ultimate causes in any investigations.

It is important to understand the proximate and ultimate causes in any investigations.

As I was reading The World until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond, I came across a discussion of proximate and ultimate causes. Diamond’s explain made me think of HR and the importance of understanding the differences of these two terms.

Proximate cause definition

Proximate cause is often used in terms of negligence. According to the Free Legal Dictionary:

 “Proximate cause is the primary cause of an injury. It is not necessarily the closest cause in time or space nor the first event that sets in motion a sequence of events leading to an injury. Proximate cause produces particular, foreseeable consequences without the intervention of any independent or unforeseeable cause. It is also known as legal cause.” Other dictionaries call it the “direct cause.”

Ultimate cause definition

An ultimate cause is much deeper and may not be close to the effect that is being looked at or considered. It is considered the “root cause.”

Why the distinction is important

The difference in these two causes is important. In an investigation conducted by HR both sets of causes need to be considered. Let me give an example. A supervisor comes to you and says “I want to terminate Betty’s employment.” Naturally your question is “why?” The supervisor tells you that she is late for the fifth time in the last two weeks. You know that the policy says that is excessive tardiness and is certainly cause for termination. The number of times she was tardy is the proximate cause of her termination. Should you investigate further? The supervisor doesn’t think so, the proximate reason is sufficient. However, in HR you should be interested in the ultimate cause.

The ultimate cause

As a good HR professional you ask Betty to come to your office. You look at her attendance record and you notice she has incidents of tardiness before but nothing like in the last two weeks. You ask her why she has been late. She indicates she has not been getting a lot of sleep and it has been difficult to get up. Certainly not an acceptable excuse, but you ask further why she is not getting a good night’s sleep. She then tells you her child has been sick, in fact has been taken to the hospital two of those nights. Upon further investigation you find that Betty had no sick days left nor vacation because she has already expended that time to take care of her sick child. This is the first you have heard of this. You ask Betty why she had not asked for FMLA time to help with this situation. She said she was not really aware of this and the supervisor had not mentioned anything. You contact the supervisor and ask him why he had not reported this and he too says he was not familiar with handling FMLA. He said he thought it was for personal illness or pregnancy.

What is the ultimate cause of Betty’s potential termination?

Requested termination < too much tardiness <no more sick time or vacation <no request for FMLA <Didn’t know about it <Supervisor didn’t know what it could be used for <Supervisor and employee not trained

Would you now be comfortable in allowing Betty’s termination? My guess is not. That is why it is important to understand the difference between the proximate cause and ultimate cause in any investigation.


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