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Making False Statements About Colleagues: Defamation Risks

Making False Statements About Colleagues: Defamation Risks

Making false statements about colleagues can have serious legal consequences. Defamation — also known as libel or slander — occurs when one person communicates a false statement about another person that damages their reputation. In the workplace context, false accusations, rumors, or misleading statements about a co-worker could potentially lead to a defamation lawsuit.

What Constitutes Workplace Defamation?

Defamation at work typically involves written or verbal statements that:

  • Falsely state or imply that an employee engaged in illegal, unethical, dangerous or other reputation-damaging misconduct
  • Are communicated to others in a way that harms the employee’s reputation
  • Cause quantifiable damages, like lost job opportunities

Some examples could include:

Merely expressing a negative opinion about someone typically does not constitute defamation. However, false statements of fact that harm someone’s reputation do carry legal risks.

Who Can Be Sued for Workplace Defamation?

Both employers and employees can potentially face lawsuits for defaming co-workers.

If a manager falsely accuses an employee of misconduct during a staff meeting, or spreads inaccurate rumors that damage the employee’s professional reputation, the employee could have a claim for defamation against the manager or employer.

Similarly, if an employee knowingly makes false statements about a co-worker to colleagues, the defamed employee may be able to sue the employee who made the false statements for defamation.

So employers and employees alike need to be cautious about making inaccurate or misleading statements about colleagues that could harm their reputations.

What Damages Can Someone Recover in a Workplace Defamation Case?

If an employee prevails in a defamation lawsuit against a co-worker or employer, they can potentially recover compensatory and punitive damages.

Compensatory damages reimburse the employee for actual losses caused by the defamatory statements. This could include lost wages, damage to the employee’s reputation, and emotional distress.

Punitive damages are intended to punish especially egregious conduct. They are awarded when the employee proves the co-worker or employer acted with malice or reckless indifference to the truth.

Successfully proving and quantifying these types of damages can be challenging. Plaintiffs may need testimony from colleagues, supervisors or potential employers to show how the false statements concretely impacted their careers. But each workplace defamation case involves unique facts about what exactly was said, how widely it spread, and the precise effects on the victim’s job prospects.

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