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Good news: Discussion of discipline that doesn’t name names is not defamation

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in HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,Preventing Workplace Violence

Supervisors can discuss discipline with co-workers if the situation warrants and not fear a defamation lawsuit. As long as the discussion is necessary for a legitimate business reason, such as preventing workplace violence or squelching rampant and erroneous rumors, the employer won’t be liable. Otherwise, mum’s the word.

Recent case: Arthur Geddes sued American Airlines and an HR manager, alleging that both defamed him by discussing allegations he had made physical threats and implying he had been disciplined.

The problem started when Geddes and a co-worker argued. The co-worker claimed that Geddes threatened he’d “cut out his intestines.” The HR manager investigated and, in doing so, told upper-level management about the allegations. She also interviewed Geddes, who didn’t admit to the threat but admitted he used language that wasn’t exactly “church talk.”

The HR manager suspended Geddes for the argument. Then, others began asking HR about the punishment. The HR manager told them she couldn’t give specifics because discipline was confidential, but did discuss workplace violence in general.

Geddes sued, but the Court of Appeals of Florida said neither American Airlines nor its HR manager had done anything wrong. Any internal discussions up the chain of command were privileged, and the general discussion about workplace violence wasn’t defamation because it didn’t discuss the alleged physical threat. (American Airlines v. Geddes, No. 3D05-737, Court of Appeals of Florida, 2007) 

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