My boss is accusing me of something I didn’t do. What are my options?
The psychological effects of false accusations at work can be devastating. We spend the majority of our waking hours at work, and thrive on the approval of our boss and reputation among our coworkers. Balancing your professional and personal life is difficult enough without the hassle and heartache of workplace conflict.
If you have been unfairly accused by your boss or a coworker, there is no time like the present to be proactive. You should request an immediate meeting with your boss and explain that you were not responsible.
There could be a simple misunderstanding, and the boss may have been misinformed.
However, if the boss places a black mark on your personnel file, or you receive a warning letter as the first step in your organization’s disciplinary process, you could:
- be honest—were you having a bad day and behaved badly?
- try not to let resentment and bitterness undermine the way you do your job—are you ready to move on, or possibly look for another job?
- cool down and calmly write a letter of rebuttal stating the facts and your version of events—are there distortions and factual errors in your disciplinary warning letter?
Responding to false accusations in the workplace
So, when defending yourself against false accusations at work, it is vital that you don’t contribute to the toxic work environment caused by disgruntlement, sniping, and undermining the boss.
In addition to staying calm, you need to cooperate with any ensuing HR investigation, which could take some time after the fact. That time will allow you to cool off and gain a more objective perspective.
Answer the investigator’s questions and be prepared to add vital specifics that could have been omitted when your accuser was interviewed. Remember to stick with the truth and have notes ready so that you don’t forget anything.
Documentation is important!
Say the boss accuses you of missing a deadline or leaving out some important tasks on a job assignment. If you can produce a printed record or detailed personal notes you made at the early stages of the assignment, you will have evidence that you followed directions.
Your supporting evidence in the form of emails, text messages, and other internal messages can be the hard proof that you have been falsely accused of something. That goes double when your accuser never leaves a paper trail and presents a twisted version to the investigator. It could end up being your hard evidence against the accuser’s unsupported assertions.
At-will employment considerations
If you work in an at-will employment state, have no employment contract, and issues of discrimination are not involved, your employer can terminate you without notice. If you become an obstacle to the mission, you could be facing termination, and the employer can fire you “at will.”
On the other hand, you can make a good case that you are not an at-will employee if you have a written contract or other statement—a job offer, for example—that promises you job security.
Courts have ruled that implied contracts exist when:
- you have been employed for a significant period of time
- you received regular job promotions
- your performance reviews were consistently positive
- you received assurances that you would have continued employment
- your employer violated the organization’s usual employment practice in firing you
- you received long-term employment promises when you were first hired
Another exception to the at-will rule is when the company has protocols in its employee handbook that govern dismissals. Often there are steps that include time lapses between warnings and final actions resulting in firing.
What if I’m facing termination due to insubordination?
There is an old saying that the boss may not always be right, but the boss is always the boss. When your employer gives a reasonable and lawful order, or your job description includes protocols, processes, and other measures that govern your performance, you can be terminated for disobedience or non-compliance.
Causes for termination due to insubordination
The three important elements necessary for insubordinate behavior are:
1. The order or requirement is clear and lawful.
2. The order originated from a person in authority.
3. You intentionally disobeyed the order.
Examples of behavior that can lead to termination due to insubordination:
- You refused to perform a job task necessary to carry out your responsibilities when you were specifically ordered to do so.
- You refused to report for work.
- You were absent from work without permission.
- You refused to remain on shift either as a salaried employee or when the employer provides overtime pay.
- You refused to attend a medical examination.
- You refused the COVID-19 vaccination and you weren’t otherwise lawfully exempted.
- You displayed insolence and disrespect towards your employer, and your conduct demonstrated the intent to defy the employer’s authority.
Examples of on-the-job behaviors that are not considered behaviors that can lead to termination due to insubordination:
- You refused to perform an action that is not required or is outside the scope of your job duties.
- You misunderstood the instructions and failed to perform an action based on that misunderstanding.
- You refused to do something illegal, unethical, or unsafe.
- The order was unreasonable in the context of norms of accepted behavior.
- The person giving the order did not have authority over you.
- You refused to agree to a change in your compensation or remuneration package.
What to do if your boss accuses you of insubordination
1. Be aware of “protected activity” under EEO laws.
Charges of insubordination come under both organizational policies and state/federal employment law. If you feel that you have been inappropriately charged with insubordination—or that the charge is being leveraged as a form of discrimination justifying wrongful termination—you can challenge the charge and escalate the matter to more senior management.
You can file a formal complaint and assert your rights under the “protected activity” category of federal laws. Your employer cannot retaliate against you and accuses you of insubordination for:
- being a party or witness to an equal opportunity investigation, complaint, or lawsuit
- attempting to communicate with your supervisor about an ongoing issue of employment discrimination or harassment case
- responding to questions during an investigation of your employer for alleged harassment
- disobeying an order that would subject yourself or another to discrimination
- intervening or resisting improper sexual advances on the job
- insisting on lawful accommodation of your disability or reasonable adaptation to your religious practice
- seeking information from co-workers or your mangers about compensation information in an effort to uncover wage discrimination
2. Consider filing an employment discrimination claim for retaliation.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, retaliation occurs “when an employer takes a materially adverse action because an applicant or employee asserts rights protected under EEO laws.”
The retaliation can occur before any of the above mentioned “protected activity” occurs. That would be when the organization’s employment policy unlawfully discourages you from exercising your EEO rights.
To prove that your employer took retaliatory action against you, you’ll need evidence that the retaliation occurred when you were engaged in activity that was protected by law. You need to show that the retaliation motivated the employer’s adverse action.
3. You could file a defamation suit.
Another legal avenue if you are falsely accused of insubordination is defamation. Defamation is the legal term for a false statement that harms your reputation. If the statement is written, it is known as libel. Verbal statements are slander.
Proving any form of defamation in court is difficult. You have to show that:
- the statement was false
- your boss made the statement intentionally
- your reputation was damaged in a concrete way
- your employer’s statement was not an obvious opinion but a false statement presented as fact
Let’s recap: What you should do when defending yourself against false accusations at work:
- If you are falsely accused by your boss or co-worker, the best approach is to confront the situation aggressively.
- Stay calm, and be honest with yourself. You could be in the wrong and have to move on.
- Cooperate with investigators, but be prepared with documentation to establish the facts that are important to proving your innocence.
- On the other hand, if you are in an at-will employment situation, your employer can fire you at any time, provided the reasons are within the laws.
- You might not be a vulnerable at-will employee if other considerations apply—a written or implied contract, for example.
- If you are facing termination due to insubordination, be aware of the definition of insubordination.
- Essentially, you are insubordinate if you intentionally disobeyed a lawful order.
- You are not insubordinate if you refuse to do something that is illegal, unethical, or unsafe.
- Federal EEO laws can override the employer’s authority to fire you for insubordination.
- Finally, you also have the option of filing a defamation suit if you can prove your employer made an intentional false statement that harmed your reputation and damaged you.