If an employer fires someone for violating company policy, it has a right to tell other employees. This can be a powerful tool for enforcing company policies as it sends a strong message that an employer takes violations seriously.
Staples, Inc. recently fired a salesman for allegedly padding his travel and expense reports. An executive then sent an e-mail to about 1,500 other employees informing them that the salesman had been terminated for violating the company’s travel and expenses policy. The salesman sued Staples for libel, but a federal court of appeals affirmed Staples’ right to publish such information so long as it is true. Noonan v. Staples, Inc., 529 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2008).
A key point in the case is that the executive stated that the salesman had been fired for not being in “compliance with [Staples’ travel and expenses] policies,” rather than for padding his expense reports. By forwarding its own reasons for terminating the salesman – and avoiding any allegations of the salesman’s intent – Staples ensured that the public statement was truthful. Employees must generally meet a heightened standard in libel suits against their employer – based on the idea that a co-worker is entitled to learn why an associate was discharged because it affects a “common interest” – that requires a claimant to show that the employer’s statement was not only false but “malicious.” Nevertheless, Staples strengthened its position by ensuring that the statements were truthful.
If you are an employer struggling to enforce compliance with your company’s policies, keep this tool in mind. For example, firing someone for sexual harassment and telling all employees about it sends a strong message that the employer monitors and enforces the policy.