False accusations at work can be damaging for the employee being accused, as well as being detrimental to company culture if not handled properly.
When presented with an allegation of misconduct that is untrue, it is incredibly distressing. However, it is important to stay calm, and co-operate with your employers investigation process.
An unfounded accusation can have a severe psychological impact on the accused. All employers have a duty of care to every employee. This means they must take care to protect your mental wellbeing after the complaint has been made.
Our guide will help navigate this stressful situation, providing advice on defending yourself against false allegations, and insight on how to navigate the process if disciplinary action is being taken against you.
What’s a False Accusation by an Employee?
When a complaint is made that is untrue for any reason, this can be regarded as a false accusation. It may be that malicious complaints are submitted when there is hostility at the workplace.
However, false allegations can also be made by an accuser who genuinely believes they have a valid complaint.
What Happens After a Complaint is Made?
Employers must investigate any complaint that is made by an employee. This is the case even if they suspect the employee is lying. Failure to do so can leave them open to legal claims.
Why Are False Complaints Made?
False accusations can happen in a range of scenarios. They can stem from misunderstandings, workplace politics, or malicious intent due to a personal grudge. Employers must take any allegation of misconduct in the workplace seriously, but not all complaints are a true reflection of events.
Here are 3 common scenarios where untrue allegations are made and some possible reasons behind them:-
1. Accused of Stealing
Workplace theft has been on the rise since the cost of living crisis started to bite. However, false accusations can arise from:-
- Misunderstandings, when an employee borrows or uses a resource without speaking to anyone about it.
- Personal grudges or misdirection when a false accusation is made to tarnish a colleague’s reputation, or redirect suspicion away from the true perpetrator.
2. Accused of Bullying
Bullying can create terrible problems within a workplace, and it is an issue that needs to be taken seriously. However, untrue accusations can stem from:-
- Mismatched communication styles, for example someone with a direct and blunt personality might make comments that are misinterpreted as aggression by a colleague.
- Misinterpretation of feedback, where criticism of performance is taken personally.
3. Accused of Harassment
Harassment is a very serious allegation, allowed to go unchecked it can create a toxic work environment. However, false complaints about being harassed can happen due to:-
- Misinterpreting friendly gestures as sexual harassment.
- Office politics, where a false claim is designed to discredit a colleague.
Regardless of the reason for a complaint being made against you, it’s important to take a calm and methodical approach to defending yourself.
7 Steps to Defend Yourself After a False Accusation
Employees who find themselves subject to a false allegation will be feeling many emotions. They will be worried about the security of their job, others’ perception of them, future promotional opportunities and how it will affect personal relationships.
Know your rights, meet the situation on the front foot, and follow these steps to compile your defence
1. Stay Calm & Co-Operate
- Try to stay calm and trust the process. It is a very stressful time but try and keep your cool as much as possible. Remaining professional will go in your favour.
- Cooperate with any measures that are put into place. You might, for example, be suspended pending investigation.
- It is vital to remain truthful throughout the process. Consider all your statements carefully to ensure you remain consistent.
2. Gather Evidence to Support Your Version of Events
- Start to gather all evidence to refute the allegations made against you.
- Get witness statements from any colleagues who were present during the events that led to the complaint.
- Collate any relevant email or documentary evidence.
- Take time to write a clear timeline of events that led to the complaint.
3. Make Sure You Understand The Complaint
- To defend yourself properly, you must be able to understand the nature of the complaint against you.
- Make sure you are given a written statement detailing the allegations against you.
4. Prepare for a Disciplinary Meeting
If you’ve had a complaint made against you, your employer may use a disciplinary process to investigate the allegation.
This does not mean they have assumed you are guilty. It is quite common for disciplinary procedures to be used in this type of situation. It provides a framework to gather all facts, and the outcome of a disciplinary may be that no further action will be taken due to lack of evidence against you.
- Ensure you are given notice for any disciplinary meeting and that any relevant information is shared. This includes what evidence to support the complaint will be reviewed in the meeting.
- Come to the meeting with as much evidence as you can.
- If the accusation has been brought up out of spite or malice, make sure you indicate what you feel the reason behind this is. It might be that you and this employee have been having problems for a while. Be sure to make this clear, but remember to keep it calm and factual.
- You have the right to be accompanied at a disciplinary. This can be a work colleague or union rep if you have one.
See Also: Preparing for a disciplinary hearing. Our guide on disciplinary hearing success has detailed tips to navigate your meeting.
5. Do Not Approach Your Accuser
- Keep your distance, where possible, from the accuser. Emotions will be heightened and you don’t want to risk making the situation worse.
- You may end up adding fuel to the fire, and could have a harassment complaint made against you.
- Remain professional at all times and ensure you follow company policy and procedure to the letter.
6. Keep a Record of Events
- Keep a record of everything that happens from the day you are accused until the matter is resolved. You might need this information at a later date. During every step write down your recollection of events and any conversations.
- Ask for any meetings to be recorded so you can retrieve conversations if you need to. You have the right to be accompanied at a disciplinary meeting. It may be a good idea to ask your support person to take your own set of minutes regarding the conversations that take place.
7. Get Legal Advice
- Get legal advice or support, speak to your trade union if you are a member. Citizens Advice is also an excellent free resource to help with employment law issues.
- Understand your options regarding taking matters further. If you have proved your innocence, you have the right to raise a grievance.
- Should you be wrongly found guilty then you can also submit a grievance or even begin legal proceedings should you wish to. This includes going to a tribunal for unfair dismissal.
The ACAS Code of practice gives practical guidance for handling grievances. Should an employer fail to follow it, and subsequently lose a claim at an employment tribunal, it can lead to an increase of up to 25% in any compensation payout.
Sample Letter Defending Yourself Against False Accusations in the Workplace
A letter stating your innocence is a key part of proving the allegations are false. It is referred to as a letter of disagreement.
This letter should be submitted as a response to an allegation and you should also include any evidence you have in your defence. It would be sensible to make a copy of everything before handing it over.
Here is a sample letter to use when defending yourself against false accusations in the workplace:
Dear [insert name]
I have been made aware of allegations made against me by [insert name]. I wish to make it clear, in this letter, that these allegations are completely untrue. The accuser has stated that I [insert accusation e.g. bullying] and I wish to defend my case.
This is what the accuser has said happened. [Go on to detail the accusations].
I now wish to clarify that this allegation is untrue and I intend to defend myself against these unfounded accusations. I’m aware of my legal rights and the right to a fair hearing. I will be gathering all the evidence that I can and will be seeking legal advice.
This is how I see the situation and how these accusations have arisen [give details eg jealousy].
I hope we can resolve this issue swiftly without it affecting my work.
Please keep me up to date with any updates on this situation.
Psychological Effects of False Accusations at Work
When an employee is accused of something they did not do, this can have a huge impact on their well being and mental health. The process of going through a disciplinary is stressful for anyone. But when it is a false allegation, the emotional effects are stark.
Depending on the accusation in question, the issue could very well spill over into the employee’s personal life. It can cause tension in relationships and make home life quite stressful. Once rumours start circulating, they can be hard to put to bed.
Work can also become a hostile environment. While employers should only talk to those on a need to know basis, these things often have a habit of getting out. There might be mistrust between colleagues and an awkward atmosphere. Such scenarios can impact productivity and overall staff morale.
How Should Employers Handle Malicious Allegations?
Employers must carry out a fair and unbiased investigation of any allegations made against a member of staff. Once it becomes clear the allegations were false, action needs to be taken to set a precedence.
There should now be a full investigation into the malicious complaint and why this happened. There might be a problem in the workforce that needs to be addressed such as jealousy or favouritism.
Such feelings can lead to hostility and a competitive nature between employees.
A decision needs to be reached regarding the false accusation. It may have been completely made up out of malice or it may be a misunderstanding.
If it was a misunderstanding then policies should be reviewed to make expected behaviours clearer. If it was done out of spite, further action such as a warning might be suitable.
3. Taking Disciplinary Action for False Allegations
There may need to be a second disciplinary, this time for the accuser for their unsubstantiated complaints. After all, everyone needs to be treated the same to ensure equality exists.
This is why it is so important to have a false accusation policy. This way everyone understands the seriousness of falsely accusing someone of something.
4. Raising a Grievance
If the unfairly accused party is unhappy with the outcome of investigations into the false allegations, they should raise a grievance.
Similarly, if a malicious false allegation has been made and no action taken against the accuser – then it would be appropriate to raise a grievance of your own.
This should be done formally by writing a letter to HR or the manager stating that you wish to take things further.