In today’s age of information, most employees are fairly well aware of their rights in the workplace. Those who don’t fully understand the federal, state, and local laws that protect them at work can quickly get up to speed on their lunch break with the Google browser on their iPhone.
This is mostly a good thing, as employers who unlawfully discriminate against their employees should be required to make reparations. However, the same wave that is rightfully correcting poor work environments has also given rise to false claims of discrimination.
Statistically, most employees who file a discrimination complaint are telling the truth. Unfortunately, the same studies also recognize that false claims from disgruntled employees and lawfully terminated workers are a real danger for employers.
Because most discrimination claims are true, even a false claim can seriously damage an employer’s reputation and public perception, and the accused employee will likely see his or her career advancement prospects suffer in the aftermath.
What to Do if You are an Employee Who is Falsely Accused of Discrimination
If you are an employee who has been falsely accused of discrimination at work, you should take immediate action to protect yourself. Your employer has a legal obligation to take workplace discrimination complaints seriously, and while you may feel like the organization has your back, the employer will ultimately need to do what’s best for company.
Here are a few things that you should (and shouldn’t) do to protect your interests:
Resist the Urge to Retaliate
When news of the false accusation reaches you, your initial reaction will probably be anger. While that’s completely understandable, it’s important to keep a cool head on your shoulders. Yelling at the accuser or sending a harsh email will only hurt your case, and taking retaliatory action like firing, demoting, or disciplining the employee is against the law (whistleblowers are protected against employer retaliation by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and several other federal laws).
Start documenting everything surrounding the alleged discriminatory behavior as soon as you’re notified of the complaint. Begin by putting your thoughts on paper, especially anything you remember about the alleged incident (think of it as a diary entry that may be read in court one day, so be careful with the words you choose). Next, search your calendar, email, voicemail, and text messages for related appointments, notes, and communication. Finally, make copies of performance reviews that can serve as a character reference. If you are terminated or disciplined by your employer, be sure to save your termination notice or formal warning, too.
Follow Company Policy to the Letter
Search for applicable company policies in the employee handbook, company manual, corporate memos, and employment contracts. Make copies of these for your records. The policies will likely explain how the investigation will proceed, and you should adhere to these procedures to the letter. If you don’t, the company could hold it against you. If the company fails to follow its own policies and you choose to file a wrongful termination lawsuit, having a hard copy of the company policy will strengthen your case.
Be Transparent with the Investigator
Whether the investigation is handled internally or externally, you should be 100% transparent with the investigator. There are a number of cases where the accused employee withheld information from the investigator citing privacy concerns, and the employee was ultimately terminated or disciplined for not complying with the investigation. If you are concerned about divulging sensitive company information, you can check with the company attorney or your own attorney.
Consult with an Attorney
You have the right to speak with an attorney at any time to protect your interests, even if the matter doesn’t go to court. If the investigation wrongly results in your discharge, you should discuss your case with an attorney as soon as possible. A successful wrongful termination lawsuit could help you get your job back and get you the damages that you deserve from your former employer.
Potential Consequences for Accused Employees
When an internal or external investigation finds an employee guilty of discrimination, the company can take a number of actions to remedy the situation. For lighter cases, the company may issue a formal warning, issue a suspension, require mandatory training, or try to separate the employees by changing schedules or forcing a transfer. In severe cases, the employer may demote or terminate the employee. Providing these actions follow company policy and are not done in retaliation, all of them are legal actions by the employer.
Legal Action After an Investigation
Arizona is an “at-will” state where employers can terminate an employee for just about any reason, but an employer cannot fire an employee when the action violates company policy or applicable employment laws. If you are falsely accused of workplace discrimination and the resulting investigation ends in your termination, you may be able to file a lawsuit against your former employer for wrongful termination.
Some wrongful termination lawsuits result in the employee being rehired by the employer, but in most successful cases the employer is compelled to pay out damages to the wrongfully fired employee. Damages can include back pay, front pay (e.g. lost wages), and liquidated damages (monetary damages that are intended to punish the employer for their wrongful action).
If your employer made untrue statements about you that damaged your reputation—perhaps by sending out an email about the investigation or gossiping about it to other managers and executives—you may also have a case for defamation of character. Defamatory statements that are printed (including email) are called libel, while oral defamation is called slander. In either case, you don’t need to establish that the defamation was malicious (public figures do, but private citizens don’t), you just need to prove that the defamatory statements materially harmed your reputation (e.g. by harming your career advancement prospects within the company).
You can also file a defamation suit against the individual who wrongfully accused you of discrimination. If his or her accusations were completely baseless and malicious, you’d have a pretty solid case for slander. However, if there is any truth to the individual’s accusations the court is unlikely to take your side, even if the company’s investigation exonerated you of wrongdoing.
Need Help With An Employment Law Issue?
The state of Arizona is a great place to live and work, but knowing the employment laws will help you a lot. Whether you are a newcomer to the state or a lifelong resident, understanding your workplace protections is good for your career, and the more you know, the better.
Call our Employment Law team at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your case today.