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What to do when someone defames you in the Workplace

Disputes

Consider the scenario: It’s been a long and tiring day at work and it’s been made all the more difficult by the unhelpful attitude and actions of your colleagues. You suspect they may be aggrieved by your recent promotion to a managerial role. You arrive home, take out your phone and begin scrolling through Facebook. There it is: One of your colleagues has posted a status referring to your recent promotion and stating that you only got the role because you had been conducting an extramarital affair with the CEO. What’s worse, you can see that several people, including your colleagues, have ‘liked’ and commented on the post. Some have even ‘shared’ the post, reposting it on their own Facebook page and inviting further commentary. While the contents of the post are completely untrue, this has not stopped the post being circulated and republished amongst countless people. You have been defamed, and you need to know what you can do about it.

What’s the difference between defamation, libel and slander?

Previously, the act of defamation was separated into two categories- libel and slander. Libel was the publication of defamatory material in a permanent form (such as a newspaper article), whereas slander was publication in a non-permanent form (such as a spoken comment). However, this distinction between libel and slander has now been abolished and defamation refers to something spoken or written which negatively effects the reputation of a person and which is not true. ‘Cyber defamation’ or defamation through the internet and social media is unlawful and is treated like all other incidents of defamation.

What is considered defamation of character in the workplace?

Broadly speaking, the primary requirements to ground an allegation of defamation are that:

  1. the publication is untrue; and
  2. the publication negatively affects someone’s reputation.

Therefore, an untrue statement that “Ms Smith drives a red car” will not be considered defamation.

Similarly, if a colleague states that “Mike was fired from his last two jobs for sexual harassment”, and this statement is indeed true, this could not possibly be considered defamation.

While there may be other areas of redress, such as making an internal workplace complaint, any attempt to bring a claim for defamation in the above scenarios would be wholly misguided.

Can I bring a lawsuit against my co-worker for defamation of character?

The short answer is yes. There are various criteria which must be met when bringing a claim for defamation. Aside from the above requirements, there are other issues to be consider, such as the fact that there is a time limit of 12 months within which a person can bring a claim for defamation. It’s also important to remember that there are significant defences available to publishers of defamatory material, including qualified privilege, honest opinion and innocent dissemination. The first step is to speak to a qualified and experienced lawyer who can advise you on the potential strengths and weaknesses of your defamation claim.  It is important to do this quickly, in case you need to access urgent options, such as an injunction.

What can the Courts do if I have been defamed by my colleague?

If the Courts find that someone has been defamed, they have the power to make an award of damages.

The recent South Australian decision in Tassone V Kirkham [2014] SADC 134 is a good illustration of the matter the courts will consider when considering the merits of a claim for defamation.

In this case the plaintiff sued his former colleague, a prison officer, over an email which the defendant had sent from the from the plaintiff’s email account to over 1000 contacts in the plaintiff’s address book. The email read: “I am a homosexual and I am looking for like-minded people to share time with.”

Although the defendant argued that the email had merely been a prank, the court found that the contents of the email had defamed the plaintiff. The court found that while the imputation that the plaintiff was homosexual was not, of itself, defamatory, the imputations that he was promiscuous and that he would use his employment to solicit sex were defamatory. The plaintiff, who had been unable to work for some time after the incident as a result of the impact on his health, and had made a claim for workers compensation, was awarded damages for both economic and non-economic loss which totalled in excess of $175,000, as well as being awarded his costs.

 Are you involved in a defamation dispute? Call our disputes team today….