How to Deal with Slander in the Workplace

A group of coworkers gossiping in the office HuffPost Canada

Workplace slander goes beyond gossip and hurt feelings and refers to false comments or statements made about you that damage (or can potentially damage) your reputation.

Depending on where you live – and whether you can prove it – you may be protected by law, but it’s always better to try to fix things yourself or talk to your boss and, if applicable, your HR department before you make such a big step. Unless you can prove that it happened and that the slander is becoming a liability for the company because it’s affecting your happiness and productivity, legal action can be both expensive and damaging to your name if it falls through.

Slander, as opposed to defamation, is tricky to prove, because it has to do with an oral statement rather than a written one. And unless you have some kind of proof or witnesses willing to speak on your behalf, then it can be near impossible to successfully take action against the person you believe has slandered you.

Therefore, if you genuinely believe you have been slandered, then follow these steps on dealing with it in a mature way.

1. Understand What Slander Is

First and foremost, make sure that you know the definitive difference between slander and gossip that’s simply getting out of hand. If that gossip wasn’t badly intentioned and there’s no risk of it going further, then getting involved and filing a complaint will only cause bigger problems. All this can be prevented if you firmly ask the person in question to stop.

There is a thin but definite line between gossip and slander. If, for example, Debra from Accounting is telling people that you wear too much makeup and you’re rubbish at your job, then this is gossip. But if she starts telling people that you are sleeping with the boss and this is why you were promoted, then that is calling yours (and your boss’s) professional integrity into question, which is definitely slander.

2. Prevent, Rather than Cure

Unless your employer has a mandatory silence policy in place, talking to your colleagues is a natural part of the workday. Of course, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that: no one ever got into trouble, or caused trouble, by talking about the weather, for instance. Problems only arise when people take each other’s innocent acts out of context and turn them into something they aren’t, so it’s up to both the employer and the employee to help prevent gossip turning into slander.

For Employers

What an employer can do is pay attention to what gossip is circulating, and who it’s coming from, especially if they have employees with a known history for stirring up trouble. A ‘don’t gossip’ rule won’t be of any use, but warnings that rumour-spreaders and slanderers will be subject to disciplinary action might get people to sit up and take notice. They should make sure their employees feel they can easily come to them with their problems; the better the lines of communication, the less the chances that a victim of slander will feel they have no one to talk to and the less likely it is that they’ll resort to more drastic measures.

For Employees

Employees should do what they can to avoid negative gossip. Never be the one to start it, and if people start talking about things you don’t like, then leave before gossip becomes ‘fact’ or you hear something you don’t want to hear. Avoid spending alone time with coworkers who like to gossip, and if that means that you have to eat lunch at your desk, then so be it. You can always ask your boss for more work if that will help keep you busier, and it will reflect well on you come promotion time.

3. Try to Address the Issue Yourself

The steps you’ll take will depend on the seriousness of what’s being said about you and how far and fast it’s spreading, but it’s wise to try tackling the issue yourself first. You don’t want to involve management or the HR department before you have to or before you have evidence to prove what you’re claiming. Evidence will help them to help you, and if you can stop the situation before it gets out of hand, then you’ve saved them from having to waste time on a simple problem.

Here are the three things you should do before taking it to a superior:

  1. If it’s less serious or limited to a small group and it doesn’t have too much of an adverse effect on your happiness or productivity, then consider simply avoiding the person or persons in question. If you have a history of problems with this person and you know they’re just trying to hurt your feelings, then this can be a good way to get them to stop. Your parents probably already taught you that ignoring a bully is the best way to stop them.
  2. If there is no history with this person, then open up communication with them by privately letting them know how you feel about their comments. In the best-case scenario, you’ll find that the coworker or coworkers in question never intended to hurt you and will apologise. You have a much better chance of getting along with this person in the future if you keep it friendly rather than if you try to drag them to a tribunal. If necessary, consider asking your employer to act as a mediator to help you through your issues.
  3. Gather evidence before you take it further. If you don’t expect talking to the slanderer to make any difference, then write them a letter instead so you can then take your letter and their response to the HR department. As slander is oral, find witnesses who heard what was said and who are willing to back up your claims.

4. Get the HR Department or Management Involved

If talking to the slanderer and writing to them hasn’t made any difference, and you’re still concerned that they’re going to continue spreading rumours and cause trouble for you in the future, then it’s time to find out what you can do to take it further.

You should first consult your contract or employee handbook to see what they say about slander, gossip or issues with coworkers; the bigger your company, the more likely it is that there will be formal channels you’re expected to go through.

Start with your boss, and present your case calmly, explaining your issues and concerns. If you can tell them that you’ve made efforts to fix the issue, they will appreciate your initiative and that you haven’t bothered them with the matter before doing everything in your power to address it. If you have written evidence or names of people who are willing to be your witnesses, then that’s even better. Even if it doesn’t go to HR, or you talk to HR but there isn’t enough evidence to bring legal action against the slanderer, these conversations may prompt monitoring of the employee in question and prevent any similar situation from happening in the future.

As with most adverse situations at work, the best idea is to stay calm and never react while you’re still emotional. It’s also better to try and deal with the situation yourself first and go through the proper channels rather than immediately running to your boss to complain. Ignoring the situation may not be the best move if it will potentially have long-term effects on your career, but you also don’t want to become known as someone who gets coworkers into trouble, as good character is just as important as a good reputation.

Has anyone ever slandered you in the workplace? How did you deal with it? Let us know in the comments section below.


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 20 November 2015.