What can you do when people spread false statements that harm your reputation?
It was going around social media that you lied about your personal relationships. There was a news story about your group, saying you supported violence. At a public meeting, a speaker called you a racist. There was another media story about your group, saying you received funding from vested interests. At a staff meeting, your boss accused you of bullying.
None of it is true, yet the claims are being repeated all over the place. Your reputation is being trashed. What can you do?
Before making accusations about lies and libel, and before rushing to your lawyer, pause — and consider your options.
Reputations under attack
This is the first in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Future posts deal with derogatory labels, guilt by association, malicious gossip and online attacks.
Understanding false claims
To appreciate what’s really going on, try to figure out what’s in the minds of those spreading the falsehoods. Could it be just a difference in perspective? Could there be some misinterpretation of actions or statements? Or is it something malicious?
Your boss accuses you of bullying. Did you do something inappropriate? Or is the boss bullying you and others, and because you called out the boss’s obnoxious behaviour, you’re now a target?
To say a claim is false is to make a statement about truth. Is that possible in an age of fake news, disinformation, and the postmodern rejection of ultimate truths? In academic circles, it’s accepted that all knowledge is provisional and open to challenge. Don’t worry about that, because for practical purposes the belief in truth remains strong in most circumstances, though often people disagree about where the truth lies.
The trouble is that powerful groups try to impose their views as being true. That means bosses, media outlets and governments assert or assume their claims are true even though others — including you — can see they are obviously false.
Issues to consider
When confronted with false claims that damage your reputation, it’s tempting to jump to an immediate defence or to lash out in a counterattack, calling the other person a liar. Usually it’s better to pause and consider what you know about the situation.
Is the other person — the one who makes the claims you think are false — sincere? Do they believe what they’re saying? This is an important question. If your boss says something damaging about your performance, maybe that’s what they really think, so it’s a matter of different perspectives, different information or a communication problem. Listen carefully. Then, if your boss seems sincere, it may be better to try to explain things. But if you think your boss is trying to get rid of you or trying to warp your perceptions — in other words, gaslighting — then you need to be more careful.
If the other person is sincere, then they aren’t lying. A lie is an intentional falsehood or intentional withholding of the truth. It’s unwise to call someone a liar if they might believe what they’re saying. To further complicate matters, many lies are for good purposes.
Another distinction is between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is information that’s incorrect, which may be due to ignorance, mistakes or sincere belief. Your boss can be misinformed while being concerned and supportive. Disinformation, on the other hand, is intentionally false. It is often used to describe covert government campaigns to discredit enemies or disrupt societies. The words misinformation, disinformation, fake news and post-truth are sometimes used as labels for attacking rather than accurate descriptions.
You need to decide whether you’re being targeted or whether the false claims referred to you inadvertently or as a spin-off from other agendas. When the boss says your report is not up to scratch, is this harassment or is it because the boss needs to please some other player and your report gets in the way? When your group is attacked by a politician in a media story, is your group a special target or just being named for rhetorical purposes?
You may not know the answers to all these questions, but it’s worth asking them and keeping in mind that you don’t know for sure what motivates other people’s actions. It’s usually better not to make too many assumptions, so you can adapt your responses as new information becomes available.
After you’ve tried to understand what’s happening and why, you can consider options. There’s no single best option when you’re subject to false claims, so you need to think about everything you know about the people and the circumstances, and decide what to do.
Although you may be upset or angry about falsehoods, sometimes it’s better to ignore them. At work, if co-workers or clients make comments about your performance, you might be better off not seeming to notice but just continuing with your efforts. Responding might seem to others like accepting the comments as potentially valid. Worse, it might simply draw more attention to them. By not responding, you also signal that you’re not easily rattled.
Counter the false statements. Just say they’re wrong. Present the evidence showing what’s actually going on.
The boss says you’re not showing up on time and that your work rate is one of the lowest on the floor. You prepared for this. You have screenshots showing when you arrived every single day, and you have the stats on work rates in your team. So there!
Defending can be effective when others respect honest information. It’s good news if they say, “Sorry, we were mistaken. You’re doing a good job.” On the other hand, if they make some new false claims, you might be subject to mobbing, a collective form of harassment. If so, the facts won’t matter.
Should you defend by collecting information and providing as many facts as you can? It depends a lot on the circumstances. If there’s any risk of a false-claim attack, it’s nearly always valuable to obtain information to counter the falsehoods. At the workplace, you can collect information about your performance, testimonials from bosses, co-workers and customers, and comparative statistics. Just hope you never need it!
Instead of defending directly, you can explain what’s going on, for example why someone might want to make false claims. This is best done in a calm manner. If a co-worker says you’re not doing your job, you might explain that the workload has increased with no added staff and for the past month you’ve been doing two people’s jobs.
Explanation is useful when others don’t know what’s been happening. It provides context so they can understand and make a judgement themselves. Rather than saying “You’re wrong” you’re in effect saying, “Here’s what you need to know so you can decide for yourself.”
Explanation is an excellent technique for communicating to outsiders, those who have no stake in the conflict. You change their understanding from “You said, they said” to “Let’s see what’s really behind this difference in opinion.” However, those involved in a dispute may just see explanation as a form of special pleading.
In some cases, nasty comments and misleading statements contain a grain of truth. The boss might say you’re never on time and always too slow, which is a gross exaggeration given that you’re nearly always on time and usually work faster than others. A disarming response is to accept the criticism. “Thank you for your feedback. I appreciate your concern about my performance.” This sort of response draws on the perspective of the Stoics, a group of philosophers in ancient Greece, whose ideas remain relevant today.
Chris Voss was an FBI negotiator who developed techniques that worked in the most difficult situations. He then found the same techniques applied in other negotiating situations, and wrote about his experiences in his book Never Split the Difference. When you confront someone, it can be powerful to start off by recounting every negative thought they have about you.
If false statements about your performance have been circulated around your workplace, when you meet the boss or someone else you need to deal with, you can lead off with something like this: “You probably think I’m never on time.” After they nod, you say, “And you probably think that I’m one of the slowest workers on the floor.” Again they nod. The surprising thing about this approach is that it enables a more open and honest interaction.
“They defamed me. I’m going to sue.”
The law of defamation is supposed to provide a remedy for damage to reputation. There are two main forms of defamation: slander refers to spoken defamation and libel to written defamation, except that broadcasts are in the libel category.
There are two main problems with defamation law. First, it serves as a means of censorship. Second, it seldom restores reputations. In addition, it is slow, costly and procedural.
The general rule is, don’t sue unless you have a lot of money and don’t mind losing it. It’s especially unwise to sue an organisation that has more money than you.
When you sue, you become the attacker. Before, you might have had sympathy due to being treated unfairly. Now people’s sympathy may switch to the person you’ve sued.
Suppose there’s a front-page news story that contains false and misleading statements about you and your group. You are accused of fraud, extreme political views, and lying. So you sue the media organisation for defamation. What’s going to happen? The most you can hope for is a published apology. It will be in small print in some obscure location on a website, and most readers won’t remember the original story.
More often, though, you won’t receive an apology. Months later, after you’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers, you might receive nothing or maybe a financial settlement. That means the organisation pays you something. That’s nice but doesn’t restore your reputation.
Rather than suing, consider other options. You can write a polite letter for publication countering the accusations (defending) or giving the context (explaining). Or you can just let it go (ignoring), guessing that most people will forget that front-page story and that by suing, you may just make more people aware of it.
When others make false statements about you, it can be extremely upsetting. Your reputation is at stake, and it’s totally unfair to be attacked with incorrect, misleading or manufactured information presented as if it’s the truth.
It’s tempting to reply immediately, while you’re angry and upset. It’s better to wait until you can calmly consider options. If possible, seek advice from people you trust, especially people who’ve been through a similar ordeal. Be especially cautious about defending, in case you draw more attention to the falsehoods, and don’t take legal action unless you know for sure that it has worked well for others in similar situations.
If you care about your reputation, and the reputation of your group, remember that people are influenced by what you do. That includes how you respond to attacks. If you seem generous, understanding and informative, you have a better chance of making a good impression. And you set a good example.
Thanks to Kelly Gates and Suzzanne Gray for helpful comments.