There are three main situations where slander could arise in the workplace: comments by an employer in a reference, comments among workers and comments by an employee about an employer. Various laws have the effect of limiting liability for slander in some of these cases, though intentionally and maliciously making such comments may still lead to legal problems.
Slander is a civil wrong, meaning a person can be sued over it but not criminally charged. In the United States, slander involves saying something about one person to another that is both untrue and defamatory -- that is, it is likely to harm the reputation of the person involved. It is similar but separate to libel, which involves the comments being written, printed or broadcast. A statement can usually be considered slander only if it is presented as a statement of fact rather than merely opinion.
Employers may risk being accused of slander when making comments about a former employee, such as in a reply to a request for a reference from a potential new employer. At least 36 states have laws that specifically limit or remove the potential liability of an employer in making such statements. Such laws usually require that the employer is acting in good faith, meaning the employer intends to be truthful in the comments.
In theory, untrue gossip in the workplace can lead to a claim for slander. In practice, however, such a claim will rarely lead to a damages award unless the comments can be directly linked to a monetary loss. One possible example of this would be where it can be shown the comments had an effect that prevented the employee from receiving a promotion.
A 2011 case involving a public employee fired for making critical comments of her supervisor on Facebook was settled in the employee's favor before getting as far as a legal ruling. Although it did not set a binding precedent, the case built upon a previous change to the National Labor Relations Act, which specifically gives employees the right to "discuss the terms and conditions of their employment" in an online forum without the fear of reprisals. Employees considering making such comments need to be careful not to cross the line between criticism and slander.
- The Free Dictionary: Slander
- Crimcheck: Job Reference Shield Laws
- Tech Republic; False Workplace Gossip Can Result in Company Liability; Ken Hardin; March 3, 2003
- "Los Angeles Times" newspaper; Settlement Reached in Facebook-related Firing of Medical Technician; Nathan Olivarez-Giles; February 7, 2011
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