Libel and Slander in the Workplace

How laws define them, and when you might want to sue

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on May 15, 2023

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Defamation is the action of damaging the good reputation of another party through a false statement of fact. And there are two basic types of defamation: libel and slander. While they are somewhat similar, it is useful to understand the difference between these two concepts.

The Difference Between Libel and Slander

Libel is a false statement that is made in writing. In contrast, slander is a false statement that is spoken orally.

Libel can occur in any form of writing. For example, it could be in an official news story, a quickly published blog post, a social media post, or even an internet comment.

Similarly, slander can also be through any type of oral communication—it can take the form of spoken word, television segments, recordings, phone calls, online videos, or in-person statements.

Proving libel or slander can be more challenging than many people realize. An unfair and unreasonable negative utterance, whether it is in written or verbal form, is not necessarily defamatory. The plaintiff must prove the following elements:

  • The false statement was of fact rather than opinion
  • The false statement was published or communicated to a third person
  • The statement was unprivileged
  • The business or person’s reputation suffered actual financial harm as a consequence of the libel or slander

Generally speaking, plaintiffs in a defamation lawsuit must prove that the defendant was at least negligent in making the false statement.

In civil lawsuits involving private persons, the plaintiff must prove the defendant’s fault by a preponderance of the evidence. The burden of proof is higher in defamation cases involving public figures. According to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark First Amendment case New York Times v. Sullivan, public figure plaintiffs must prove the defendant’s “actual malice” rather than negligence by clear and convincing evidence.

An Overview in Employment Law

Both libel and slander can be an issue in the workplace, and they can occur in both directions. An employer may be the victim of libel or slander if a current or former worker made a knowingly false statement that damages the reputation of the business or organization. Likewise, an employer who makes a false statement, written or oral, about a current or former employee can also be held liable.

Perhaps the most common example of an employment-related defamation claim is an employer making an alleged false statement about a former employee who is seeking a position with a third-party company. Employers can generally give their honest opinion about a former employee during a reference check, but they cannot make a false statement that causes reputational harm to an individual worker.  

How to Fight Back

Workplace defamation claims are a unique area of law and should always be handled on a case-by-case basis, with careful attention to the specific facts at hand. In certain circumstances, filing a defamation lawsuit may be the best available option.

In other cases, there may be an opportunity to resolve the matter at a lower level. If you have questions about libel and/or slander and your legal rights, a law firm with an experienced employment lawyer may offer legal advice, if you have a defamation case. They will help you determine the best course of action to protect your rights and interests.

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