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Lynne Curry: Can employee sue supervisor for defamation in job review?

Lynne Curry

Q. My former supervisor, who doesn't like me because I threaten her, gave me a mediocre performance review. As a result, I lost my chance for a major, four-figure bonus. I refused to sign the review because her "doesn't meet expectations" ratings have no basis in fact. I'm our department's top producer.

I protested the review to human resources and senior management. HR tells me I can write a rebuttal but this won't get me my bonus as management refuses to reconsider my bonus eligibility as they've already given out bonuses.

I plan to resign; I've already found a new job. My question -- can I sue for defamation as my supervisor harmed my reputation?

A. To successfully sue your supervisor for defamation you need to prove she made false, injurious, published statements about you and that she lacked any "privilege" protecting her statements.

As you lost out on a bonus and others saw your review, you likely can meet the injurious and published criteria. The issue you may have most trouble with is that your supervisor's ratings might not constitute defamation because they're opinion-based and it's difficult to prove opinions are false.

Two cases in which employees sued for defaming job reviews illuminate this.

An Amtrak service manager sued for defamation after he lost his job due to low performance review ratings. Although his supervisor gave him four 7's and three 3's on a 1 to 7 scale, the general manager lowered the manager's score to five 3's (meets expectations) and two 2's (rarely meets expectations).

According to the court, because the GM lowered four other employees' ratings, had reasonable cause for doing so and showed no malice, she didn't defame the manager.

Raytheon vice president Cynthia Hyland sued Raytheon and its president for defamation after receiving a performance review that claimed she was responsible for financial losses, unwilling to accept feedback and inappropriately criticized others. Raytheon defended against the suit by defending the review as accurate.

According to the court ruling, only two of the five statements Hyland protested constituted defamation as the others were statements of opinion and thus difficult to disprove or prove.

Although Raytheon initially prevailed in lower court, Hyland ultimately won $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages.

The final question: Do supervisors have "privilege" protecting them for what they write in job reviews? As these two lawsuits show, employees have sued supervisors, occasionally successfully.

Q. I got my first job four years ago. Since then I've had five jobs. I've had my current dead-end warehouse job for nine months and had a hard time getting it because employers think I job hop.

I'm trying to make the best of it but shoving boxes from pallets to trucks is not what I want to be doing with my life. I know I need to gut it out for at least three more months so my resume will look better but that leaves me feeling powerless.

My older brother told me to call you.

A. Take back your power -- and don't run.

When we feel trapped, it's natural to focus on outside circumstances. Our real power, however, always lies in ourselves.

Stopped telling yourself you're trapped, powerless and that the best solution is finding a new job. You've tried that the last four times, and it's a dead-end game.

You have choices: Quit and accept the consequences to your job-hunting future, or stay. "I have to" always translates into "I choose to," as "I have to clean the garage" equals "I choose to clean the garage because I want it clean and organized."

Don't mistake tough choices with no choices. When we face real-life challenges and meet them, we find new areas of personal strength. Do you choose to prove you have what it takes to last a year in a job?

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com. You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through www.workplacecoachblog.com.


Lynne Curry
THE WORKPLACE