When it comes to discharging employees for alleged dishonesty, here’s some sound advice for managers and supervisors: Don’t discuss why the employee was terminated with anyone who doesn’t need to know. Keep the information private to avoid a possible defamation lawsuit.
Recent case: Susan Christian and her husband both worked for Wal-Mart. The company terminated her husband. Naturally, Christian was unhappy and she was going to participate in her husband’s age discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart.
Then the chain fired Christian for allegedly helping her daughter return to the store a pair of children’s shoes that she had not purchased at Wal-Mart. The company said that was theft.
Soon, Christian found herself answering former co-workers’ questions about why she was fired. Several wanted to know what Christian “had stolen.”
Christian sued Wal-Mart, alleging she had been fired for supporting her husband’s lawsuit. She added on a defamation claim. She alleged supervisors had told her former co-workers she had been fired for theft.
The court said Christian should get a trial on both issues. (Christian v. Wal-Mart, No. 07-14482, ED MI, 2009)
Advice: Don’t risk a lawsuit. Enforce a standard policy of “no comment” on all . Under state law, falsely accusing someone of theft is “defamation per se.” That means that if a jury believes Christian was falsely called a thief, she doesn’t have to prove the defamation harmed her reputation. The jury simply decides what the damages will be.
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