Defamation in the Workplace – An Attorney Overview

Defamation in the Workplace

Words can hurt, and words can be actionable if they are false and uttered or expressed in the workplace. The typical defamation cases in the employment law context deal with third-party defamation. As explained below, unless there are unusual circumstances, the intra-corporate conspiracy doctrine prevents claims against the employer for one employee reporting a falsehood against another employee.

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Illegality of Defamation – Background information

You may be involved in many ridiculous banters or light – hearted fun making, but serious and derogatory claims which contain no ounces of truth shed negative light on an individual’s character, hampering their image and perception by other persons. When such claims are passed on or spread across the workplace or related areas involving an external entity it is known as third party defamation and it calls for a defamation lawsuit, whereby the victim can press charges.

Such cases are actionable in courts as they can lead to recoverable damages and hampering of livelihood and growth potential of the victim. It is generally required to be proven that the defaming communication was because of a harmful & malicious intent rather than one with no similar intention.

What Constitutes Defamation?

Defamation in legal parlance is said to happen when there is willing, intention of harm and purposeful communication of a false claim or factual implication of the victim that throws negative light and degenerates the image of the victim.

A defamation offence can occur because of ‘slander’, which is a written statement or publishing of the claim, or by orally expressing a false statement about someone as true, which is coined as ‘libel’. The following cases are considered to be a manner of defamation if the underlying communication is proven to be of false nature.

  • False accusations of criminal activity
  • Stating that an individual has a malicious disease
  • Undermining an individual’s capabilities of executing or performing a trade or business
  • Implying misconduct through sexual behavior or activity
  • Any other related form of communication which damages the reputation of the victim and impairs his relationships with family, friends, acquaintances, etc and ability to have a respectful living.

Intra Corporate Conspiracy Doctrine

The Intra corporate conspiracy doctrine refers to conspired defamation by a institution and its employees or within the employees against other individuals or institutions. Such cases are usually dealt with strong repercussions as they involve defamation by placing the victim as culprit or plausible suspect of certain misgivings, which has the same motive as defamation.

An organization along with its employees may conspire to place another entity in a position forcefully proving the entity of an activity or causing an event which leads to negative perceptions and publicity. Such instances are also found within the corporate where an individual or a group of employees conspire to defame another so as to hinder their progress or disturb their livelihood.

However, the Doctrine itself serves as a shield from liability for employers. Companies use the intra-corporate conspiracy doctrine to prevent liability. Courts have held that a company cannot defame itself. Meaning, a company acts through its employees, and if an employee defames another employee, from the company’s perspective, it is only defaming itself, and therefore no liability exists. If an employee is acting outside of the scope of his or her employment, then the defamation claim can be pursued against the individual who made the falsity which caused damages.

The Typical Employment Law Defamation Case

The context in which an employer can be held liable under defamation law in when an employer, through its authorized representative, states a falsehood to a third party. This typically occurs when an ex-employee gives as reference a prior employer, and the prospective employer calls the ex-employer and is informed of negative and malicious statements regarding the ex employee.

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That is why most employers, through the advice of their attorneys, only give a neutral reference. This means, date of hire, years of service, wages, and whether they can be rehired or not. Employees mistake this to mean that they have a right to privacy and an employer can not say more. This is not correct, an employer can say whatever it wants, even render opinions, so long as the uttered statements are not false. Defamation cases are complex and esoteric and the advice of an attorney is always the preferred method to ascertain your rights.

Damage Recovery

In defamation lawsuits, to claim recoverable damages, an account of actual damages suffered has to be provided. Most cases which do not have proof or existence of any actual damage received due to defamation are unable to claim any form of damage recovery.