What Is Defamation of Character in a Workplace?

Water cooler gossip is generally not considered to be defamation.

Water cooler gossip is generally not considered to be defamation.

If you are an employer, you should be familiar with what defamation in the workplace is to avoid potential legal troubles. For instance, an accusation of defamation can occur after you’ve been contacted by someone doing a background check on one of your current or former employees. So stick to the facts, document what you communicate and keep your opinions separate from the facts you relay about one of your former or present employees.

Defamation

Defamation, or defamation of character, occurs when one of a company’s representatives maliciously or negligently shares untruthful information about a coworker, superior, or subordinate with a third-party that does irreparable harm to the other person’s character, reputation, or career. Defamation can take the form of libel, which refers to defamation that is done in writing; or slander, which is defamation that happens when someone verbally communicates a fraudulent statement to another person. Although defamation laws differ by state, you generally must have caused an individual to suffer damage of some sort in order for the person to accuse you of defaming her. If you are accused of defamation per se, however, the subject of your verbal or written statements does not have to experience damage or harm.

Defamation Per Se

Deliberately making defamatory statements that have only one, egregious interpretation is known as, “defamation per se.” Defamation per se occurs when you purposefully share misleading information about someone, which cannot be understood in any other way other than the fraudulent manner you intended for it to be comprehended.

Examples of Defamation

An example of libel would be sending an email to several employees that says Employee A stole from your business when she did not, which results in Employee A being avoided by her formerly friendly coworkers and possibly fired. Slander would include an instance when you tell a former employee’s prospective employer that the employee committed fraud when she didn’t, which causes the prospective employer to offer the position to another party. Defamation per se would include any communication you initiate or repeat to another person that cannot be misinterpreted, for example, that one of your unmarried employees is promiscuous or has a sexually transmitted disease. In general, water cooler conversations, sharing your honest opinions, joking and gossip are not considered defamation.

Consequences of Defamation

If someone files a defamation suit against you, she may be able to collect compensatory damages for various things including legal expenses, humiliation, mental distress, emotional suffering and, possibly, lost wages. Depending on the lawsuit filed against you, the plaintiff may also be awarded punitive damages as a form of punishment for you.

 

About the Author

Deborah Barlowe began writing professionally in 2010. With experience in earning securities and insurance licenses and having owned a successful business, her articles have focused predominantly on finance and entrepreneurship. Barlowe holds a bachelor’s degree in hotel administration from Cornell University.

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