Nicholas Carroll

Slander in the Workplace:
Blue-collar vs. White-collar

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Nicholas Carroll
May 5, 2013

Defamation in the workplace – usually oral, so it is slander – is so common that the question is who it never happens to. (Answer: the lucky.) About the only people who never suffer slander are those who work almost entirely alone, or those rare people who are so universally well-liked that negative talk about them immediately rebounds on the gossiper.

If we're not in one of those groups, then we're potential targets for slander sooner or later. The question just becomes how severe it is, and whether it starts hurting emotionally or financially. Gossip about body odor or bad breath can be solved with a shower and deodorant, or mouthwash and a tongue scraper. Amiable insults about a foul-up can be defused by making fun of your own mistake (and not making the mistake again).

Past that – or maybe even before that – I've seen radical differences in blue-collar vs. white-collar defamation. Some notable differences:

Blue-collar slander rarely involves company email, since most blue-collar workers don't use email for work. If the Internet is involved in spreading the defamation – which means it's now libel, not slander – then it will probably happen outside the workplace, on social media like Facebook or Twitter.

White-collar slander can migrate into email libel, even among top executives who should know better – in fact the top level may be more likely to pull such a stupid move than the middle managers. (I'm remembering the racist email at a major oil company years ago where a top manager emailed others that "The black jelly beans have all shaken to the bottom of the jar and stuck together." It hit the front page of every newspaper in the country, though I'm not sure it was legally actionable by any individual African-American employee.)

In white-collar organizations slander is usually by fellow employees. You don't often see it from mid-level managers. It can start with as little as brown-bagging lunch instead of going to lunch with the gang. A few months of missing group lunches, and you can become the subject of gossip. This can be mild to start – and will usually stay mild with most co-workers – but it may create a launch point for a psychopath or kook to start spreading more extreme claims.

In blue-collar companies really damaging slander is usually by managers. I routinely hear from readers whose managers have seriously slandered them, completely falsifying performance reports, or actually calling an ex-employee's new boss and trashing them, including lies about stealing merchandise or company property.

Oddly, I hear this most often from truck drivers – dozens of times over the years. (I'm guessing here, but perhaps that's because trucking firms are spread out across fairly wide geographic areas. Auto mechanics or carpenters, by contrast, tend to move from one company to another in the same county, and slander doesn't play well when the new boss can make three phone calls to other local shops and confirm that the mechanic or carpenter has a good reputation. Just as likely within a county, the prospective employer probably already knows the mechanic's or carpenter's reputation.)

In any case, blue-collar managers are rarely punished for this sort of crazy behavior. It never gets upstairs to the executives – if there are any executives – and blue-collar workers don't file defamation lawsuits nearly as often as white-collar workers.

By contrast, if I learned a former manager at a Fortune 500 company had called my new company and slandered me, it could cost them their job. Since white-collar workers are much more likely to sue, a manager insane enough to call a former employee's new company and trash them could soon be questioned by "legal" (the legal department), which is not a pleasant experience for a middle manager.

"Racism" or "sexism" are hot button words in white-collar companies or company departments. All bets are off if you are accused of either. (Sort of like being accused of child molesting as a schoolteacher.) Co-workers may not believe it, but management can pile on fast with deranged questioning or miniature "courts martial" inquisitions in which you feel like Alice In Wonderland, being questioned by the Mad Hatter.

Unsurprisingly, the accusations usually come from people who are racist or sexist themselves. (The psychological term is "projection" – people projecting their own exact flaws on other people.)

Oddly enough, it's often harder to deal with workplace slander than family slander. In theory you're stuck with your family, but can always change jobs. In fact – particularly following the Great Recession and Covid – changing jobs might be difficult or impossible. And conversely, a lot of families are completely estranged, and no one talks to anyone else anymore – people simply move on to finding company in their family formed by marriage, or their friends.



White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. Joan C. Williams. Harvard Business Review Press, 2017.

Division Street: America. Studs Terkel.‎ The New Press, 2006.

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