Can an employer defame his employee in a dismissal letter?
It is quite routine for an employer to issue an employee with a letter of dismissal when the employment relationship comes to an end at the employer’s initiative. This could relate to either prior misconduct of the employee, incapacity due to poor performance or ill health or even retrenchment. What happens when an employer has held a disciplinary enquiry with an employee and the employee has been found guilty of say fraud and theft? Can the employer now in a letter of dismissal communicate to the employee (and the world out there) the detail of the reasons for the dismissal. On the face of it such reasons and advice would be defamatory of the employee. The employee has after all not been found guilty in a criminal court of such misconduct and may never in future be so convicted.
An employer dictating a dismissal letter containing such prima facie defamatory matter to the secretary of the firm is publishing defamatory matter to a third party. An employer has a moral, social and legal duty to communicate the reasons for an employee’s dismissal to him / her. The publication of the contents of the letter of dismissal to the typist is, however, regarded as a privileged occasion. Publication to the typist of the contents of the letter of dismissal to be typed is publication in the exercise of the duty to inform the employee of the reasons for termination of his employment. It will therefore not constitute defamation.
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