Defamation is a broad term to describe damage to a person’s reputation due to another’s false statement about that person. Defamation can be in the form of a written or recorded statement called libel or in verbal form called slander.

To prove defamation, the victim must show:

  1. The statement was a false factual statement and not an opinion;
  2. The statement is about or references the victim either by name or some other context that clearly show that the statement is about the victim;
  3. The statement was published or made to a third-party who understood the statement; and
  4. The statement caused measurable damage to the victim’s reputation.

What is Employment Defamation of Character?

Employment defamation involves false statements about a current or former employee that harms the employee’s ability to maintain their current position or seek a new position. There are two main ways employment defamation occurs:

  1. When an employer or other person makes defamatory statements in the workplace, the result could be the employee can no longer be employed either because the statements cause them to be fired or creates such a hostile environment that the employee has no other choice to but to resign. In either case, the employee may have the right to file a wrongful termination lawsuit.  
  2. A more common defamation of character in employment is when a former employer makes a defamatory statement to a prospective employer or background check investigator. When such a statement prevents the former employee from obtaining a job then it may be an actionable claim for defamation.

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What are Some Examples of Defamation in the Workplace?

There are different ways for an employee to suffer defamation in the workplace, as it’s not just about who says the defamatory statement but how it impacted the employee. Here are some examples:

  • A former supervisor tells a prospective employer that the employee stole from the business while employed with them when the employee did not. As a result, the prospective employer hires someone else.
  • A co-worker falsely tells the supervisor that the employee lied on their job application causing an investigation and the employee to be suspended without pay until the investigation concludes.
  • An ex-spouse tells the future employer of their ex that they sleep around and cannot be trusted. This leads to the future employer not hiring the ex.

Are there any Exceptions or Defenses to Employment Defamation?

Yes. Truth is always a defense to defamation. Thus, if an employee got caught stealing at their workplace and was fired as a result, this information can be provided to a future employer. An exception to employment defamation is when an employer provides a bad reference.

While no federal law exists protecting employers who give bad references, many states do by providing a privilege to employers acting in good faith. However, employers who act recklessly or intentionally provide false information about a former employee may be subjected to a defamation suit.

Should I Consult a Lawyer?

Yes. If you lost your job or a prospective job opportunity due to a slanderous or libelous statement, a local personal injury lawyer can help.

They can assist in an investigation and determine whether you have a viable case for defamation. A lawyer can also draft the documents necessary to file a lawsuit and represent you in court.