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Employers may be responsible for co-Worker defamation and assault

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in HR Management,Human Resources

Need another reason—beyond harmony and collegiality—to insist that managers maintain a civil and considerate work environment? Consider this: Employers can be held liable for the defamation and assault of co-workers.

Recent case: Panda Allia worked for Target Corporation as an HR executive until she was fired. She sued, alleging Target discharged her to appease black employees who had filed EEOC race complaints against the company. She also alleged that a co-worker defamed her by calling her a “psycho bitch,” and that another co-worker pushed her, leaving marks on her chest.

The court first considered the defamation claim, which it dismissed on a technicality—Allia couldn’t prove that the co-worker actually had called her a psycho bitch in the presence of other employees or customers. Instead, the insult had been lobbed at Allia in a private confrontation. Since defamatory statements have to be “published” by being broadcast to other persons, she didn’t have a claim. Employers aren’t responsible for a co-worker who calls another colleague a nasty name in private.

On the other hand, the court did say Allia’s lawsuit against Target could go forward on the assault charges. Employers are responsible for co-workers who strike other co-workers at work. (Allia v. Target Corporation, et al., No. 07-4130, DC NJ, 2008)

Final note: Defamation and workplace assault cases are great examples of an ounce of prevention being worth the pound of cure that might be available in court. Before trouble erupts, develop robust no-name-calling and hands-off policies. Punish employees who don’t treat everyone with respect.

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