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Watercooler Whispers: Managing Workplace Defamation Risks in the UAE

February 5, 2024

The UAE, with its diverse private sector workforce and a vibrant social media scene presents a unique environment for navigating the intersection of workplace conduct. Defamation especially comes into light taking account of the cultural sensitivities at play and the UAE’s strict legal framework around protecting honour and reputation.

A misstep in this tricky terrain can have significant consequences for individuals and the organisations they work for.

This article aims to put the spotlight on the relationship between defamation, workplace conduct, and employment law in the UAE, an understanding of which is crucial for employers and employees alike whether safeguarding their reputation or working to ensure a harmonious work environment.

What Counts as Defamation in the UAE?

In the UAE, defamation refers to the act of making a public statement of fact that causes another person to be subjected to punishment or contempt, or publicly insulting another person in a way that harms their dignity or honour. This includes statements made through written, spoken, or electronic means (which comes with the potential to reach a wider audience through social media platforms). The UAE Penal Code provides the foundations of the legal framework on defamation, with punishments ranging from fines of up to AED 20,000 to imprisonment for up to two years. The severity of the penalty can be further amplified if the defamatory statement is made through electronic means under the UAE Cybercrimes Law under which fines increase to between AED 250,000 and AED 500,000, or made against a public official. 

Notably, truth is not a general defence to defamation in the UAE, unlike in many other jurisdictions. The only exception is in relation to statements made about public officials, where proving their truth can serve as a defence. This unique aspect of UAE defamation law can be surprising to those accustomed to legal systems in other parts of the world where truth is a cornerstone defence in such cases.

Against this definition, it should not be difficult to see that workplaces provide plenty of scope for defamatory conduct to occur, with potential examples including:

  • Spreading rumours or gossip about colleagues: Sharing claims about someone’s performance, work ethic, or personal life can be deemed defamatory if it damages their reputation.
  • False accusations of misconduct: Making allegations of harassment, discrimination, or other inappropriate behaviour against a colleague.
  • Negative performance reviews: While constructive criticism at work is necessary for development and performance management, sharing negative reviews that damage an employee’s reputation can be considered defamatory.
  • Online communication: Social media posts or online discussions that refer to colleagues in a negative light could be construed as defamatory. 

Consider the following scenarios, which illustrate how these actions could be brought to life:

  • Scenario 1: A disgruntled employee posts negative comments about their manager’s performance on a public social media platform. This could be considered defamation if the comments damage the manager’s reputation.
  • Scenario 2: An office rumour regarding an employee’s marriage breakdown spreads within the company, affecting their personal and professional standing. This could also constitute defamation.
  • Scenario 3: Employee A raises a workplace grievance with their employer in which they state that B has committed fraud in the performance of their job, which results in Employee B’s dismissal. Employee B may have the basis of a defamation complaint against Employee A and the employer.

Consequences of Workplace Defamation  

In the UAE, acts of defamation in the workplace, as illustrated by these examples and scenarios, can have significant repercussions for both employers and employees: 

  • Criminal prosecution: The victim of defamation may file a criminal complaint with the police against the offender, potentially leading to severe consequences for the individual making the defamatory statements, including potential prosecution leading to imprisonment.
  • Civil court proceedings: The offender may face claim in tort and seek a court order for the accused to pay compensation for damages caused to the victim’s reputation.
  • Internal grievances/disciplinary action: An employee may use the internal grievance procedure to address the issue informally and seek internal disciplinary action against the offender. Employers may then have to take disciplinary steps, including warnings, suspension, or even dismissal.
  • Damaged company reputation: If an employee makes defamatory statements about their employer and/or colleagues, it can damage the company’s reputation and potentially adversely affect its business connections and operations.

Of course, for the victim of defamation, the damage extends beyond legal repercussions. Harm to one’s reputation can affect an employee’s career prospects and mental wellbeing. Therefore, taking steps to address workplace defamation is about more than legal risk management, it can be seen as crucial for maintaining a healthy and productive working environment.

Preventative Measures to Protect Against Defamation

Under the UAE Labour Law, employers in the UAE have a responsibility to maintain a safe and respectful work environment for their employees that is free from harassment and discrimination. This includes actively preventing and addressing instances of defamation within the workplace, which may be done through several ways:

  • Establishing clear policies: Implementing clear company policies (including around anti-bullying, harassment, and discrimination) that outlines acceptable workplace conduct and prohibits defamatory behaviour in any form.
  • Provide training: Provide training on appropriate workplace conduct and educating employees on the UAE’s defamation laws and the potential consequences of engaging in defamatory conduct. Advising employees to think carefully before making any statements about colleagues or employers, and to consider whether they could be construed as disparaging in any way. Employers will often outsource the delivery of workplace behaviours training to HR consultants, or their legal advisers, to help with the legal education element alongside highlighting potentially defamatory conduct, and providing guidance such as:
  • Avoiding gossip and rumours: Not to actively participate in conversations that could damage someone’s reputation.
  • Documenting concerns carefully: Raising complaints about a colleague’s conduct constructively and directly with the relevant person or through official channels to minimise the risk of statements being interpreted or deemed as defamatory.
  • Be judicious with social media comments: Especially considering the stricter penalties for online defamation under the UAE’s Cybercrimes Law.
  • Respecting cultural differences: Being mindful of cultural differences and sensitivities that are inherent in a diverse workplace and avoid making statements that could be offensive or disrespectful to colleagues from different backgrounds.
  • Professionalism in communications: Avoid unnecessary personal comments, gossip, or sharing unsubstantiated information about colleagues.
  • Be mindful of the retention of documented interactions: Reminding employees that records of emails, voicemails, or other communications are kept that could potentially be misconstrued or used as evidence of defamation.
  • Review grievance and disciplinary procedures: 
  • Limit distribution: Restrict emails or information sharing to individuals who are directly involved in or have a genuine need to know about the complaints under consideration. Ensure that only relevant and essential information is communicated to involved parties, avoiding unnecessary elaboration that could lead to misinterpretation or harm to an individual’s reputation. 
  • Adopt Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs): Incorporate NDAs or provisions within the organisation’s grievance and disciplinary documentation framework that highlight the sensitive nature of such proceedings and explicitly forbid unauthorised disclosure of any related information along with contemporaneous agreement from the employee(s) concerned as to who will see such information. 
  • Employment contract provisions: Consider including pre-emptive provisions in employment contracts that inform employees about the potential dissemination of potentially damaging information during grievance and disciplinary procedures as being necessary for the proper investigation of allegations. This may help to deter complaints from employees if they have can be reminded that they have affirmed their awareness and consented to this fact.

Defamation in the UAE workplace touches on both employment and criminal laws. By understanding the legal framework, proactively adopting appropriate measures such as regular training, and practicing responsible communication in person and online, employers and employees can create a safe and respectful work environment where everyone’s reputation is protected, and the risks of defamation claims are well-managed.

Warning: This article provides general information and should not be considered as legal advice. For specific legal guidance, please consult the author or any other qualified legal professional in the UAE.

Author
Emily Aryeetey

Partner, Stephenson Harwood LLP

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