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Falsely Reporting Workplace Harassment: What Employees Should Know

Falsely Reporting Workplace Harassment: What Employees Should Know

Workplace harassment is a serious issue that can create a hostile work environment. However, false allegations of harassment can also have serious consequences. As an employee, it’s important to understand the implications of making false harassment claims.

What Constitutes Workplace Harassment?

Harassment involves unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. It becomes unlawful when enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive.

Offensive conduct may include offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.

The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome. For example, sexual conduct is unlawful harassment if it is unwelcome. The challenged conduct must be unwelcome in the sense that the employee did not solicit or incite it, and in the sense that the employee regarded the conduct as undesirable or offensive.

Why Do Employees Make False Harassment Claims?

There are a few key reasons an employee may falsely allege harassment at work:

  • Revenge – To get back at a boss or co-worker they don’t like. The employee may have been disciplined or passed up for a promotion and decides to falsely accuse the manager of harassment as retaliation.
  • Attention – To gain sympathy and attention from co-workers or supervisors. The employee may crave being the center of attention.
  • Cover-up – To divert attention away from their own poor performance or misconduct. Falsely claiming harassment puts the focus on the accused rather than the accuser’s own issues.
  • Money – Hoping to get a financial settlement from the company. Some employees see making a harassment claim as an easy payday.
  • Mental illness – In some cases, false accusers have mental health issues that cause them to make up untrue stories. Delusions or distorted thinking can lead to false allegations.

While these motives do not excuse making false claims, it provides some context on why employees knowingly make false reports.

What are the Legal Implications?

In addition to employment consequences, there can also be legal implications for making false accusations:

  • If an individual is falsely accused of harassment in a public way, such as social media posts, they may have grounds to sue the accuser for defamation of character. False statements that harm someone’s reputation are defamatory.
  • Retaliating against an employee for making a harassment complaint, even a false one, could lead to legal liability under anti-retaliation statutes. However, falsely reporting harassment is not protected activity.
  • If an employer takes an adverse action against an employee based on knowingly false statements, the employee may have a claim for wrongful termination or discrimination.
  • Falsely reporting criminal conduct to the police, such as sexual assault, can lead to criminal charges like filing a false report or obstruction of justice.
  • In some cases, falsely accused individuals have sued the employer for negligent investigation or negligent supervision for failing to properly vet the harassment claim.
  • If false allegations surface in a court case, the accuser could face perjury charges for lying under oath.

While the exact laws vary by state, false accusations can lead to both civil and criminal liability. Speaking with an attorney is recommended if falsely accused.

What are an Employee’s Rights?

Employees who are falsely accused of harassment have legal protections:

  • The right to receive detailed information about the accusations against them. Under Title VII, the accused has the right to know what specifically they are being accused of.
  • The right to fully respond to allegations and defend themselves. This includes providing witnesses, evidence, and their full side of the story.
  • The right to not be immediately terminated or punished. The employer must conduct a thorough, impartial investigation first. Adverse action cannot be taken until the investigation is complete.
  • The right to appeal if disciplined or terminated. Employers should have an appeals process to challenge disciplinary decisions.
  • The right to sue for defamation, wrongful termination or discrimination if falsely accused. Employees can hold both the accuser and employer accountable.

While harassment claims should be taken seriously, accused individuals have legal recourse if they are falsely accused.

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