Defamation occurs when someone lies or says something false about another person, verbally or in writing, to a third party, which then causes damage to the person’s reputation. If defamation is in writing, it is called libel. If verbal, it is called slander.
In employment, defamation can occur where a supervisor or manager falsely accuses an employee of dishonesty or serious misconduct to co-workers or members of management, or if an employer knowingly provides false information to another employer seeking a reference. Many wrongful termination cases can also be potential defamation cases, especially where the employer communicates “facts” about the employee’s performance, competency or conduct which can be proven false.
Still, many states grant employers a qualified privilege to make statements about employees regarding discipline, termination, and references. Therefore, simply showing that a false statement was made is not sufficient. Instead, the speaker’s state of mind is what really matters. The person must have acted maliciously, known that the statement was false, or have been reckless in determining whether the statement was true.
For example, if your employer makes a simple mistake when giving a reference by looking at the wrong file, it is unlikely you will have a claim for defamation. Similarly, if your employer gives an unfavorable opinion about your performance to another, you will not have a defamation claim unless your employer said that the unfavorable opinion was based on a fact, and that fact was not true. By themselves, opinions are usually not enough to bring a defamation claim.
In all defamation cases, you will need to prove damage to your reputation. The law presumes that certain false statements cause injury to reputation. Such statements include words imputing a criminal offense, a loathsome disease, business misconduct or serious sexual misconduct. For other false statements, you will need to prove actual harm to your reputation or employment prospects.
If you believe your employer has defamed you and you have been injured, you should contact an employment lawyer for assistance.