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Can you get sued for talking badly about a co-worker at work? If you talk to your CEO and mention that the tech lead he hired is terrible and doesn't know what he's talking about, can you get sued for it? What if it's a lie? I am thinking it doesn't matter if it's a lie or not and you're allowed to voice your opinion, but I am trying to make sure. Assume this is either in Canada or the United States.

I am not saying I would lie, but the incompetent guy would make a case that I lied, which isn't simply true.

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  • Knowingly accusing someone wrongly would clearly give way for a lawsuit. But "being incompetent" is a) subjective and b) not in itself illegal or really an offense. Of course, if you have no real evidence on why you accuse your co-worker, this could backfire, but it would be quite ridiculous if it was illegal to criticize someone at work.
    – PMF
    Oct 11 at 14:06
  • Note that there's a big difference between saying "That new hire is not up to his tasks" (eg he made a much better impression in the interviews) and saying "That new hire is an a...e".
    – PMF
    Oct 11 at 14:10
  • It's not a lie though, it's what I truly believe.
    – Sayaman
    Oct 11 at 14:22
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The question read:

I am thinking it doesn't matter if it's a lie or not and you're allowed to voice your opinion, ...

Under US (and I think also Canadian) law, it very much does matter if such a statement is a lie, the truth, or an opinion (which is neither).

If a statement is a statement of fact, and is false, it might be grounds for a defamation suit (in this case probably slander, rather than libel, in those states that have preserved the distinction).

A statement of opinion is not a statement of fact, and is not taken as either true or false. However, sometimes a statement framed as a statement of opinion is treated as a statement of fact. "I think it is clear that Joe murdered Fred" would be treated as a statement of (purported) fact in a defamation case.

To prevail in a defamation case, the plaintiff must show harm to his or her reputation, unless the defamatory statement falls into one of the categories considered defamation per se Traditionally these are:

  • statements or suggestions that a person was involved in criminal activity;
  • statements or suggestions that a person had a "loathsome" contagious or infectious disease (normally a sexually transmitted disease);
  • statements or suggestions that a person was unchaste or engaged in sexual misconduct (in some jurisdictions this applied only if the person was a woman);
  • statements or suggestions that a person was involved in behavior incompatible with the proper conduct of his business, trade or profession;

Specific legislation has modified these categories in some jurisdictions.

A statement asserting that a co-worker was incompetent might fall under the fourth of these categories. A statement that a co-worker cheated his employer almost surely would fall under the fourth category.

In the absence of defamation per se a successful defamation suit would need to prove specific damage to reputation, which would include proof that the person defamed had a reputation above rock-bottom before the defamation occurred, and it was harmed by the statement.

Negative statements of opinion about a co-worker would not be grounds for a defamation lawsuit, but might violate the employer's policy and be grounds for discipline or even dismissal.

In the US, the First Amendment's protection of expression now makes defamation harder to prove than in many other countries.

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    What about the fact that it is said to an employer (someone with an interest in knowing). Is there any question of privilege?
    – Nemo
    Oct 11 at 15:31
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    @Nemo What statements are privileged varies significantly by jurisdiction. But a knowingly false statement is usually not protested by privilege. An employer may ask "Did Jane Jones finish the project by Tuesday?" and a co-worker may respond. But if the response is a lie, that is a knowingly false statement of fact (not a mistake, and not an opinion) then Jones might have grounds for a suit. A statement of "honest error" might well be privileged. Oct 11 at 15:37
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    What if it is not knowing false but just turns out to be incorrect?
    – Nemo
    Oct 11 at 15:55
  • The majority rule is that these statements would be privileged. Statements made in good faith in the course of employment investigations, performance reviews, etc., are subject to a qualified privilege against defamation claims.
    – bdb484
    Oct 11 at 18:01
  • @Nemo accidental falsehoods are usually protected. In some extreme cases speakers may have to prove it was an honest mistake, that they made some effort to determine the truth but still came up with the wrong idea.
    – Ryan_L
    Oct 11 at 19:30
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Can you get sued for talking badly about a co-worker at work?

Under US defamation law, statements of opinion are not actionable. False statements of fact are actionable, but the relief to be awarded depends primarily on whether the statements constitute defamation per se (i.e., defamatory "regardless of the context") or they cause what is known as special damages. Your description does not reflect that the CEO reacted to the co-worker's detriment as a result of the statements of fact.

Also if the co-worker's ineptitude is widely known among those in that context or environment, he might be considered as defamation-proof, which means that his reputation cannot be further harmed by the lie.

In line with the comments, statements of the sort "he is utterly incompetent" are statements of opinion. But truthfulness is important if the statements are essentially statements of fact framed as opinion.

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