Being accused of anything in the workplace can be humiliating and traumatizing, especially when its false!
Everything you once knew is now up in the air and you're thrown into a new world of office politics that you could never have imagined. No matter what you do at this point, you're in the spotlight and you need to handle the situation with extreme caution.
To help you navigate these uncharted waters, we've prepared these top tips for you to follow when you've been falsely accused at work.
1. Remain calm
If you remember nothing else you read today, remember this tip: stay calm. Being accused can make anyone’s blood boil, we totally understand, but, you're a professional and even in the heat of anger, it’s important to handle yourself with grace and dignity.
While it may seem like the easiest thing to do, retaliating in any way possible is a bad idea. Don’t do it. Allow the HR investigator to review the claims and come to you as they see fit.
If you’re an employee with a previous good standing with your employer, trust that it will speak volumes during the investigation and allow the process to work without getting worked up over nothing at this stage.
2. Be cooperative with investigations
As with any workplace “employee relations cases”, true or not, these can take a substantial amount of time and investigating from your HR team. Be patient, but most importantly, be cooperative with the investigation as it comes your way.
It doesn't matter if you agree or not with the investigator or the allegations being thrown around, it's always better to take your emotions out of it and share the facts in a cooperative manner that will help the process along. Look at this as an opportunity to share your side of the story in its entirety.
Maybe you were not first on the list for the investigator to come to, and by the time they reach you, they may have a list of questions for you to answer. Do as they ask. Answer the questions and utilize this time to add in any specifics you believe may have been omitted when your accuser was asked the same question.
Stick to the truth — now more than ever — but be sure it’s comprehensive and ensure no detail is left out.
3. Resolve any misunderstanding
During these discussions, a continued dialogue may develop between you and the HR investigator — that's totally normal and absolutely okay, as long as you allow it to be positive and resolve any miscommunications or misunderstandings.
Due to the nature of these types of situations, HR may not be able to share much information with you. However, be aware of what they do share and ensure there is no misunderstanding of the situation at hand.
Remember, your HR department is currently evaluating stories from you, but also (perhaps) from a number of your peers and supervisors, so take the time to clarify anything that does not jibe with the truth and make sure human resources knows where the misunderstanding may be stemming from.
4. Cut communication with the accuser
At this point in the process, you’ve had some discussions with your HR investigator, and it can be easy to stew on the fact that someone you work with could say something so wrong and defamatory about you! Even more dangerous than that would be to talk to that person about the issue or anyone involved with the investigation at all.
We recommend, at this point in the evaluation, cutting communication all together with the accuser. This is bigger than dealing with competition in the workplace. Of course, you will need to be professional in your work interactions. Don’t go overboard, but due to the nature of any investigation, HR may provide you with a “workaround” in order to avoid having to interact with that employee at all.
Should they not provide you with an alternative point of contact during this investigation, it is completely justifiable to ask for one. You’ve been falsely accused, and you know it, so continuing to communicate about work-related items with your accuser would not be conducive to your work environment.
Be sure to speak up and request accommodation should you need to have direct interaction with the accuser until the investigation is complete.
5. Keep documentation of everything
If you do not already have one, now would be a great time to create a “safe harbor” folder and document all the details of the organization. Think of it as if someone were telling you a story that has all these twists and turns and added information that you cannot possibly think applies to the main story — that should be what's in your safe harbor file. Considering only 58.9% of organizations even track employee relations matters at all, documentation is key!
Write down every detail, no matter how small, from the beginning to the end of the investigation process. It may seem trivial to do so but keeping a thorough record of this investigation may help you should another investigation, related or unrelated, come down the road.
Not only will you have yourself protected should the situation be related to the current investigation, but you will be able to refer back to your safe harbor file and see how the investigation was conducted, so you can be more prepared along the way.
Take note of team member interactions towards you and each other during the investigation. Notice if behavior has changed and be sure to speak to your HR department if the behavior becomes hostile towards you throughout their evaluation.
6. Offer supporting evidence
At this point in the process, you should ensure you have compiled all your supporting evidence for the accusation to prove your innocence. Supporting evidence can include:
- Text messages
- Internal messages
These can be qualified as hard proof to help you in your journey to prove you are not in the wrong!
Do not be discouraged if you do not have any hard evidence to substantiate your innocence. Often, in these types of cases, the accuser will not leave a paper trail. If this is the case for your situation, remember, trust the process and allow the facts to shine through in the end.
7. Know your rights and the law
Understanding and cooperating with the investigation does not mean you roll over and play dead. You should still know your workers’ rights. You’re innocent here, and should be innocent until proven guilty anyway, so make sure you treat the situation accordingly.
Evaluate your employee handbook on how grievances are handled, including the possible outcomes. Make sure to look into your state, federal and local laws that may be applicable, too. There’s no such thing as being over-prepared in situations like these, so do the research and equip yourself with the knowledge needed to protect yourself.
8. Seek legal support
Depending on the severity of the situation, it might be beneficial to seek legal advice to try to get a better comprehensive view of where you stand. This is specifically important for false accusations regarding the following:
- Gross misconduct
- Harassment (of any kind)
- Abuse (of any kind)
Any egregious accusations, even though we know they are false, should prompt you to reach out to a legal support team. While it may be hard to bring in an outside party (after all, you know you’re innocent), having professional legal support provides you with more specific advice to your situation will be extremely helpful.
Seek out a lawyer specific to the accusation that can also focus on employment law for your specific location that can defend your case, should that next step be needed.
It’s important to note here that legal advice can be expensive, and any expenses incurred from this would be out of your own pocket. Use this route if one of the above situations are being called into question or if you believe you’re about to get fired and you do not see another option. If none of those apply, feel free to skip this step and go through the other motions as listed.
9. Find witnesses
Prior to getting into this step, it’s important to be aware that you should not go to employees asking if they saw the situation or are aware of what is going on. While effective communication is important, once an HR investigation has taken place, you should not speak to anyone outside of HR about the situation at all.
With that caveat being said, if you remember any witnesses during the situation in questions, feel free to reach out to HR and let them know there are more people that should be included in the case and allow them to interview those individuals as they see fit.
While it may be difficult to think that you're involving more of your colleagues, your friends even, in this false accusation, the more witnesses that can back up your story, the better! When the investigation is all said and done, no one will be the wiser that you gave their name as a witness to HR, and further, you're providing them with a safe environment to speak up and support the innocent.
10. Be truthful
The saying “honesty is always the best policy” could not be truer when you’re falsely accused at work — do not think otherwise. Do not hide the truth.
If you feel you could have said something during the investigation that may not have been completely truthful, because you were so frustrated or desperately trying to prove what you know to be true by embellishing a little, now is the time to speak up! Go to your HR and let them know. While your intentions are pure, some of your information may have been biased and allow them to decide with the unbiased, unemotional information.
It's best to view the situation as an outsider altogether and remove all of your personal emotions, as much as you can, from the facts you’re presenting to your HR investigator. That includes if you feel like you've done nothing wrong. It’s okay to be honest about that as well and speak the truth.
In the end, your HR team is looking for the truth, and if they aren’t, it’s time to leave your job. Trust the process and trust they are seeking the truth. Continue to help them do so by being truthful throughout the investigation.
11. Stay on top of your work
It can be so hard to stay focused during an active HR investigation, but right now you must do just that, focus and stay on top of your work! Ensure your regular work output has not changed and that you’re still achieving your required deliverables as you would outside of the investigation.
Bear in mind that time away with HR during the investigation can take time out of your workday, so it’s important to dedicate your focused attention when you are actively working. Don’t let this false accusation take any more of your time or work attention.
While they are investigating the false accusation, show them why they hired you in the first place by staying up to date with your current workload.
12. Mind your body language
When we feel under attack, our body language can reflect defensiveness, which can lead your investigator to believe you may have something to hide, even though you don’t! Be mindful of this and, just as you use body language to advance your career, use body language to highlight your innocence. Try to use body language signals, such as:
- Eye contact
- Uncrossed legs and arms
- Lowered voice
Remember, stay calm. But even if you're not calm in the moment, make sure your body language says that you are!
13. Don’t go off the radar
While an active investigation is taking place, you’re focused on giving your story to HR, staying calm, seeking legal advice if necessary, and staying on top of your work. It can be easy to fall off the radar. Quick tip: Don’t! Doing this will only spark suspicion that you’re guilty, but you are not.
You have nothing to hide, so don’t hide yourself. Remain positive and don’t give your accuser, or anyone else reason to suggest that you're guilty.
14. Consider taking legal action
Should the false accusation take a turn and your employer believes the false statement, you could have a case for a defamation lawsuit. A defamatory statement is defined in this case as: “A statement that harms the employee’s reputation, making it difficult to maintain their current job, or seek a new position.” To prove a defamation case in court, the following five elements must be true:
- The employer made a defamatory statement.
- The employer published the defamatory statement to a third party (this can be written or verbal).
- The statement was false.
- The employer was at fault in making the false statement.
- The false statement caused injury to the employee’s reputation.
These cases are not taken lightly. Should your reputation suffer irreversible damage, for this situation, a job loss, and the above five elements were met, you may have a case to file for defamation of character.
15. Amend relationships
You made it! At this point, the investigation has come to a close and a new normal has been set — your innocence has been proven.
While this may result in terminations, or personnel shuffles as your HR department sees fit, your innocence is no longer in question and the case is closed. Show that you’re the bigger person and extend an olive branch to any team members you may have not been as close to during the investigation and work on mending those relationships.
False accusations are enough to drive anyone crazy. Your character is being questioned, your work disrupted, and you're being interrogated on something that didn’t happen. While it can be difficult to follow all of the above steps in the heat of these investigations, remember these few tips:
- Stay calm
- Be honest
- Know your rights
- Document everything
- Stay on top of your work
Trust that the process will work out and the truth will be known!
Have you been falsely accused at work? What did the process look like for you? Let us know in the comments!
This is an updated version of an article originally published on 2 May 2019.