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‘No comment’ is best response when reporters call about a firing

by on
in Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources

Discharging an employee is stressful to everyone concerned. It can be doubly stressful if the employee held a publicly visible position. Local reporters are likely to call asking for information about why the organization fired the employee.

Handling those calls poorly can spell legal trouble. A no-comment policy may be the best way to go.

If you suspect litigation on the horizon, save the he-said/she-said for the courtroom proceedings—don’t be tempted to try the case in the court of public opinion. Going too far may mean defamation charges. An added worry: If your job description doesn’t include talking to reporters, your loose lips may even mean personal liability if it turns out accusations against the employee were false.

Recent case: Fred Paffhausen was a library director, working under an employment contract. He lost his job after the library board chair persuaded the full board that Paffhausen’s contract should be terminated for cause.

Paffhausen sued, alleging wrongful termination. Testimony in fact revealed that the former library director had an unconventional way of dealing with critics. According to one account, he once picked up a bullet he kept in a dish on his desk and told a reporter that the bullet had the reporter’s “name on it.”

Naturally, when word got out that Paffhausen had been fired, reporters called. After talking to the chair, numerous articles about his alleged behavior appeared in the local paper. The chair, who admitted her job did not include talking to the press about former employees, was a possible source of the information.

Paffhausen sued the board chair for defamation. The court refused to dismiss his suit, reasoning that if Paffhausen can prove the chair wasn’t authorized to talk to the media and told untruths, she could be personally liable. (Paffhausen v. Bay County Library System, No. 06-13324, ED MI, 2008)

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