Small Business


Playing the victim

Show comments

You have to admit, the Peter Slipper and James Ashby affair is getting murkier by the day. There really is a chance – no matter how small – that Ashby’s allegations of harassment against his former employer are totally unfounded. If that’s the case, many business leaders would be able to relate to Slipper’s plight.

For an ethical boss, being falsely accused of harassment can be one of the most confronting and demoralising things to deal with at work. There is an important distinction, though, to be made between false claims and malevolent ones. 

A false claim is when an employee misinterprets a colleague’s actions as harassment. For example, an innocent invitation to go to the pub after work for a drink can be erroneously perceived as a come-on. A malevolent claim, on the other hand, is when an employee fabricates a situation with the cruel intention of damaging a colleague’s reputation.

The latter happened to me while working in a large financial services organisation. There was an underperforming employee in my team, the type who never achieved her targets, constantly came in late, and spent more time moaning than working. 

After a long period of coaching and professional counselling, she failed to show any improvement. She’d been issued with her first written warning, then her second, and just as we were preparing to terminate her employment, she conveniently lodged a formal complaint of workplace bullying.

It’s surprisingly not that uncommon. On at least half a dozen occasions this year, leaders have shared with me their tales of similar retaliatory tactics from their employees. (Curiously, all of them have been from the public service.)


The consequence in each case has been the same. Upon making the false claim of harassment, the employee was let off the hook by a petrified HR department desperately wanting to avoid industrial relations tribunals or intrusive media coverage. And the message that sends to other employees is quite simple: you’ve always got one last card left up your sleeve.

It’s an issue that seems to be getting worse. Harmers Lawyers, a specialist workplace legal firm, revealed a couple of years ago that there had been a “significant” increase in false bullying claims. Two reasons explain this trend.

The first is awareness. As employees become more educated about the options available to them, they’re more likely to pursue those options. 

The second reason can be attributed to insecurity. When employees feel as though their job is on the line because of an impending restructure – or personal poor performance – they might be compelled to use a false claim of harassment as a way of keeping their job safe.

It’s not even solely an issue of harassment; it’s also one of false discrimination. Take, for instance, the employee who misses out on a promotion because of his own shortcomings but blames homophobia instead. Or the employee who doesn’t earn a pay rise but immediately assumes it’s because of misogyny.

Earlier this year, Vivienne Dye was ordered by the Federal Court to pay $5.85 million in legal costs after her claims of sexual harassment against two managers were found to be untrue. The judge labelled her a liar with a “venomous desire for revenge”, and he congratulated her former employer – the Commonwealth Bank – for fighting to clear the managers’ names rather than opting for a payout to make her go away.

The employee was let off the hook by a petrified HR department desperately wanting to avoid industrial relations tribunals.

There was another case in the UK last year that attracted a lot of attention because of its unexpected outcome. Debbie Smith sued her boss, Tim Watts, for sexual harassment, discrimination and victimisation. When her claims were found to be fictitious, she was made to pay damages of £100,000.

What both of those cases demonstrate is that to knowingly lodge a false claim of harassment is, in itself, harassment.

What do you think? Have you ever had to deal with false accusations?

 Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis