Suppose someone is falsely charged with a crime. They’re innocent until proven guilty, right? They have the right to a trial, to a lawyer, and to confront their accusers, right? They have a right to defend themselves and be judged by a jury of their peers, right? And if they are innocent, they may be exonerated and vindicated, right?
All true. And these rights are a cherished part of our democracy. It’s all part of what we Americans call “Justice.” And most of us would see the heavens fall before we would allow a citizen to be punished for committing a crime without having these rights honored.
But suppose someone is falsely accused of doing something wrong AT WORK. Say they were accused of committing sexual harassment when they did no such thing. Or suppose they were falsely accused of doctoring time records, or some other act of dishonesty. And suppose they get fired on the basis of this false accusation. Surely they would have some protection from such false accusations, right? After all, getting fired is serious business. It can harm someone as much or more than getting charged with a crime.
The reality, though, is that for most employees there is little or no protection from being fired on the basis of a false accusation. Unless the employee is in a union or in the classified civil service of the government, the employee is considered “at will.” This means that they serve “at the will” of their employer, and thus that they can be fired for any reason that is not “contrary to law.” This can include entirely false and even “made up” reasons. So unless the employer’s ultimate motivation for firing the employee is an illegal consideration (like discrimination) there is often no legal remedy for the “at will” employee who is fired on the basis of a false accusation. They can be punished without a trial, without a fair chance to defend themselves, and without any due process.
This is hard for many people to understand or believe. We are a nation that believes in justice, fairness, and rights. When I tell clients that an at will employee may not have any legal recourse after being fired on the basis of a false accusation, I am often met with blank stares. People have trouble believing that can be true in America. But the truth is that few people have less rights than an at will employee fired on the basis of a false allegation.
If the employer repeats the false accusation to third parties – such as to prospective employers who call for a reference on the fired employee – then in that instance the employer may be liable for defamation of the employee’s character.
But otherwise the falsely accused employee often can get no “justice” for what may be an extremely unjust act.