There are many reasons why someone might make an accusation against someone else at work that isn’t true. It could be a simple misunderstanding or a mistake, but it could also be deliberate or out of malice. Regardless of the motivation behind it, being falsely accused of something can be devastating, especially when it happens in the workplace. Fortunately, there are options available to resolve the situation. Speaking to an attorney can help you get an understanding of your situation and how to move forward.
Understanding False Accusations and At Will Employment
California is an at-will employment state which means that an employment relationship can be ended by either party at any time for almost any reason. In fact, no reason has to be given at all. Unfortunately, this means that if someone makes a false accusation against an employee, the employer is generally legally permitted to simply terminate the employee without an investigation.
However, if the false accusation is made intentionally with the intent of discriminating against a protected category or as retaliation for engaging in a protected activity, it may be considered wrongful termination.
What Should I Do If I Am Falsely Accused of Harassment?
There are steps you can take to protect yourself if someone in your workplace is falsely accusing you of harassment. It is important to be calm, transparent, and cooperative.
Remain Calm and Be Professional – It is easy to get worked up and act emotionally when facing false accusations. The best thing you can do for yourself is to stay calm and collected. Do not raise your voice, use foul language, or escalate the situation in any way. Keep your body language from becoming aggressive or defensive. Clear up any misunderstandings if you can and be open to resolving the issue. In some cases, it truly might be just a misunderstanding, and being respectful towards your accuser and taking them seriously can help facilitate a more productive dialogue.
Be Honest and Cooperate with Any Investigations – Explain your side of the situation as clearly and truthfully as possible. Cooperate with any investigations your employer may conduct and provide any evidence that you may have in your defense. Emails, text messages, and intraoffice chat messages are generally time and date stamped and show if they have been edited or can not be edited at all. It is also helpful to have witnesses corroborate your side of the story. Do not lie, omit details, or exaggerate the truth. When facing false accusations, it can be tempting to alter facts to make yourself look better. But it is much more likely to make you look worse if and when you get caught in a lie.
Avoid Your Accuser – If possible, avoid any interaction with your accuser. If you must speak with them about work-related matters, do so over text or where others can see and hear you. Try not to be alone with them or speak privately on the phone. There should always be unbiased witnesses or documented proof of exactly how the interaction happened. Be calm, polite, and professional in all your necessary interactions. Sometimes, employers will make adjustments to separate parties involved in a workplace conflict if possible, during any investigation. This is especially important if the accusation is regarding any kind of personal misconduct against them such as sexual harassment.
Do Your Job – Do not allow the situation to have a negative impact on your work. Do not become distracted, or isolated, or take excessive time off. Be present and focused to maintain your productivity and professional reputation. A false accusation can distort the way people perceive you and it can be helpful to remind them who you really are as a person and as an employee. This is especially important if the accusations are related to the work itself such as fraud, incompetence, or unreliability.
Talk to a Lawyer – It is good to know your rights and options in any situation. This can mean speaking to your HR or union rep, reviewing your employee handbook, or seeking legal advice. There may be different kinds of lawyers you might want to speak to depending on the nature of the accusation and how far the accuser takes the matter. Some situations where false accusations at work may require you to hire an attorney include but are not limited to:
- Being accused of a crime
- Being accused of a public policy violation
- Being accused of a tort
- The accusation is motivated by discrimination against a protected category
- The accusation is motivated by retaliation for engaging in a protected activity
- The accusation resulted in defamation of character
The EEOC Claim Process
If someone is terminated as a result of a false accusation, it may be considered wrongful termination if things like discrimination and retaliation are involved. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission oversees employment laws and matters of wrongful termination. A claim can be filed with them directly and they will investigate the matter. They may find a resolution themselves, or they may issue a “Right to Sue” letter, after which a lawsuit can be filed.
What Not to Do if Falsely Accused of Harassment
There are many different ways to go about handling a false accusation at work depending on the circumstances, but there are a few things that you should never do.
Do Not Lie – Do not fabricate the truth. Do not omit facts. Do not destroy evidence. Do not ask anyone else to lie for you. If you are concerned that something might make you look guilty, be honest about it and explain the situation as best you can. Getting caught in a lie can discredit everything you say or do and will make you look guilty even when you’re not.
Do Not Confront Accusers – There are many reasons why you may need to interact with your accuser or their witnesses against you during an investigation. Depending on the job and the workplace, it may be impossible to avoid them completely. If you must interact with them, do so professionally in front of witnesses or in writing. You do not want to speak privately with someone who has already proven they are willing to lie about you. Do not speak to them about the accusation, or anything related to the subject if you can. This can easily be misconstrued as you trying to coerce or intimidate them.
It is human instinct to want to protect and defend ourselves. False accusations can be a threat to your reputation, your livelihood, and even your personal life. Unfortunately, this can cause us to take actions that are not in our best interest. This is one of the reasons why it can be helpful to seek legal advice. An attorney can guide you through the situation in a way that has the best chance for a positive outcome.
Slander vs Libel
The law defines false accusations under two general categories:
- Slander – Verbal
- Libel – Written
Slander is a more well-known term colloquially, and it is a common misconception for people to claim they are the victims of slander when it is actually libel.
Libel can sometimes be a little easier to fight since there are word for word statements that can be pointed to and disproven. Also, once the accusation is in writing, the accuser will be less able to change their story. Slander might get more complicated as the accuser has more room to rephrase their statement and alter facts when met with evidence against them. For these same reasons, it can also be easier to hold someone accountable for libel if and when the accusation is proven to be false.
Can I Sue for Being Falsely Accused?
If a false accusation causes real harm, you may be able to take legal action. Sometimes, a false accusation may result in the accused losing their job. If that accusation is shared outside of the company, it might also make it difficult or impossible for the person to find work elsewhere. In these situations, the falsely accused may be able to file a claim for defamation of character.
Can I Sue My Employer for False Accusations?
If an employer makes a false accusation against you and the consequences of that accusation cause damage to your reputation, it might be grounds for a defamation claim. The accusation must be a published false statement that is not privileged and causes harm to the victim. False accusations made by employers can cause damage not only to that job but can also negatively impact your overall reputation and impede your ability to find work elsewhere.
What Qualifies as Defamation of Character?
In order for an accusation to be considered defamation of character, there is a list of five criteria that all must be met.
A Statement Is Made – The person, in this case your employer or coworker, must have communicated the statement in some way. Ways in which a statement might be made include:
- Verbal comments
- Text Messages
- Official Records
- Body Language
The Statement Is Published – They must make the statement to someone else. A private accusation made only to you would not qualify. Ways that this would be met include but are not limited to:
- Directly telling a third party
- Speaking where others can hear
- Sending a message in a group chat
- A publicly accessible document
- A social media post
The Statement Is False – In order for an accusation to be considered defamation, it cannot be true. If someone at your workplace makes negative statements about you that are completely accurate, it does not qualify as defamation, regardless of the outcome. However, if they make an accusation that they genuinely believe to be true, and it turns out to be false, it may not qualify unless they reasonably should have known the truth.
The Statement Caused Harm – There must be some kind of injury or damage caused by the statement. A common reason that someone might sue for defamation involves the employee losing their job, having their professional reputation ruined, and being unable to find work because of the false accusation. False statements that are not harmful are not considered defamation.
The Statement Is Not Privileged – There are some situations where communication is protected and cannot be claimed as defamation such as testimony given under oath. There are also some state laws that consider professional references to be protected statements as well.
Contact Mesriani Law Group if You Have Been Falsely Accused at Work
Having lies told about you in your workplace can be extremely distressing and it can be hard to know how to go about resolving things correctly. An attorney can help you navigate the situation and make the ordeal less stressful. Sometimes, false accusations are a weapon that coworkers and employers might use as a form of harassment or retaliation. If someone is fired because of a false accusation that was made out of discrimination against a protected class or as punishment for engaging in a protected activity, there could possibly be grounds for wrongful termination. If you were wrongfully terminated for false accusations made out of discrimination or retaliation, call Mesriani Law Group today for a free consultation.
Falsely Accused FAQs
Can you get fired for making false accusations?
California is an at will employment state which allows employers to terminate employees for just about any reason that is not motivated by discrimination against a protected class or retaliation for engaging in a protected activity. One of the few exceptions to at will employment is if there is a specific employment contract or collective bargaining agreement in place that states the employee can only be terminated ‘for cause’. This means that they can only be fired if they did something wrong. Making false accusations about coworkers or employers would be a valid cause for firing an employee in most cases.
What to do if you are falsely accused?
If you are facing false accusations at work, it is important to remain calm and be honest. Do not confront your accuser or try to alter the facts. Gather as much evidence as possible to disprove the accusation. Speak to an attorney, human resources, and your union representative if you have one. Get all of the facts of the situation and as much information as possible about your rights and options.
How do you prove you are falsely accused?
If an accusation is false, then it is being made because someone is lying or because there is a misunderstanding. Showing evidence of the truth or explaining the reality of the situation can often clear things up. The best way to go about defending yourself against false accusations at work generally depends on the nature of the accusation.
A coworker says you physically attacked them – You may have security footage that shows otherwise.
A customer says you yelled and cursed at them – A nearby coworker could confirm you did not. Someone says you were stealing money – You can provide records showing your register is never short.
Your manager says you are not doing your job – You can show them evidence of your productivity or the ticket you sent to IT about your computer not working properly.
Your employee says you called them a “useless piece of trash” – You can explain that you were talking to the copy machine and did not realize they were standing nearby.
A coworker says you were sexually harassing another employee – You might explain that the other employee is your spouse, apologize for making your coworker uncomfortable, and agree to tone down the public affection at work.
What are the psychological effects of false accusations?
Being falsely accused of wrongdoing at work can have a substantial negative impact on your mental health. Not only the shock and hurt that someone would lie about you, but also the stress of trying to prove your innocence. The damage to your reputation can also cause feelings of isolation and depression. The accusation may even carry a risk of criminal charges which can compound the psychological toll of the situation. Even if things are cleared up and everything goes back to normal, there could be lasting anxiety about it happening again. Emotional distress is just one way that false statements can cause real damage.