When you put a false statement about another person in writing, it's called libel. Speaking those same inaccuracies is referred to as slander. Defamation occurs when you publish or publicly declare false statements about other people with the intent of hurting them. Legally, defamation can be prosecuted even if your slander or libel unintentionally harms another. While defamation laws vary from state to state, the practice can damage morale and teamwork in the workplace, place employers at risk and lead to job loss.
Prior to the invention of the printing press, slander was a much more typical way to defame another person's reputation. Public speaking that caused harm to another created fodder for the courts. A printed derogatory statement holds a much longer shelf life however and with the storage capabilities of the Internet, libel can last forever. According to attorney Gregory Abbott, in the 21st century, libel and slander have become interchangeable terms.
Read More: What Is Libel Law?
A negative or slanderous statement is not defamatory if you say it to a person's face or under your breath. For example, a co-worker cannot charge you with defamation if you tell him off in the parking lot with no one else to witness the account. If, on the other hand, you tell everyone in the office false information about a co-worker, he can sue you if he can prove it damaged his ability to earn a living. Slander can be damaging if you repeat false statements to your boss that leads to your co-worker's dismissal.
As an employer, you have rights when it comes to defending yourself against charges of defamation. For one thing, opinions can never be construed as libel or slander, according to the Legal Aid Society. If you write or say anything about an employee's personality, that constitutes an opinion. The Legal Aid Society advises that you can be held accountable for defamation however if you say that an employee or co-worker stole money or property as a statement of fact when it is not true. Negative information provided to you by an employee is privileged and you have the right to use it as you see fit. Information gleaned from background checks, interviews or evaluations are not subject to libel laws. True statements also are not considered libel or slanderous.
If you plan to take an employer to court for defamation, you must be prepared to prove the allegations. You'll need witnesses if your boss made false statements about you or a copy of the publication or email in which the statement was made. You'll need to show how her actions harmed you; whether you lost your job or reputation in your industry. While lost income is a tangible measurement of the damage your boss or co-workers caused you, you also may have a case if the libel or slander is obviously harmful, even though you may not be able to measure it precisely. For example, if your integrity or honesty is challenged publicly, the defamation may have long-lasting effects on your career or standing in the community that has no price tag. You should keep records of any patterns of abuse or unfair treatment you received to show intent.
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."