How to Handle an Ex-Employee Harassing Your Business
Being fired is awful, but it is something we all deal with at some point in our lives. Most of us will handle it with the grace and dignity we should, while others…follow a more spiteful route. A friend of mine, who owns a fast-food franchise, once told me an interesting story about this. After he had let go of a few people hired for the summer, one of them started sneaking into the trash every night to slather old, half-eaten food on the building. Tired of spending the morning hosing down his restaurant, he eventually aimed a security camera at the trash and caught the kid on video. But, he was worried about confronting him because he actually thought the angry employee would sue him! Stories of overly litigious ex-employees have scared business owners to the point where they don’t know how to deal with that kind of harassment. While I can’t exactly give a sure-fire, ironclad plan to deal with harassment, I have discovered a few effective ways to cool things down.
This might not be an exciting solution to a harassment problem, but it’s an important first step. If you react, they will react – it’s as simple as that. You fired them, now they are trying to get back at you. Figuring out the damage, then, is a good way to measure their reaction. What are they doing? Can your business continue unabated? Are they damaging your reputation? It’s hard to see someone complain about your company, but if they’re just leaving angry comments on your Facebook page or a bad Yelp review, you can be pretty sure they aren’t doing much harm. Comments can be deleted, and sites like Yelp are pretty good at flagging false reviews. Sometimes the best action is no action at all. When they realize no one is paying attention to their tantrum, they’ll get tired of throwing it. But if what they are doing is harming your business, you have a right to react.
Handle it in House
Just make sure that reaction isn’t public. Again, I understand the visceral, gut reaction to someone badmouthing you online is to respond. But you need to be more measured than they are. Responding publicly can add legitimacy to their complaints, and fuel to the fire. Plus you need to be very careful with employer-employee confidentiality and privileged information laws. Airing all of their dirty laundry in a public forum can be grounds for a defamation suit. If you have a good idea about who is bothering your company, call them. Ask them to come in to talk. Normally this sort of anger is rooted in a lack of closure – they may have felt blindsided and didn’t receive the kind of explanation they feel they deserve. Cooler heads will prevail, so stay calm and rely on logic over emotion when talking to them.
Take it to Court
This is the worst-case scenario – a nuclear option. But you can claim defamation. Just know that, in most cases, a statement that is defamatory has to be a false statement of fact. So you can’t sue someone for saying ‘This company is awful and I hate it.” That’s an opinion, not a statement of fact. But if they make statements that harm the company’s reputation, are provably false, and were made with the understanding that the statement was defamatory, then you may be able to argue defamation. Defamation claims, though, are difficult to prove. Another option is to claim tortious interference – this is when a third party interferes with your business in order to cause economic loss. An ex-employee who uses contacts they made through your company to badmouth your business – like by going through their client list and e-mailing everyone to say you cut corners and don’t care about your customers – may qualify. But, again, courts tend to be skeptical of these claims. Your best bet really is to just keep good records of any harassment, and try a cease and desist before going any further.
More often than not, the harasser will get bored, or distracted, and just stop. My friend who owned the fast-food restaurant found that, after about a week, the guy who was harassing him got tired of digging through the trash and stopped coming. But that isn’t a hard and fast rule, and there are people with serious anger problems. Threats of violence should, of course, always be reported. But harassment that amounts to leaving angry reviews online can usually be dealt with a light touch. Really, the best thing you can do is nip the problem in the bud during termination. Have clear, understandable reasons for your decision, and be willing to let them process that information and ask questions. Letting someone go is always emotional, but it’s better to end with sad understanding than angry surprise.
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