An employee has a personal dispute in the workplace that leads to name-calling on social media and, ultimately, a physical confrontation. Is the company liable for any injuries sustained?
Generally no, the employer will not be responsible for intentional acts resulting from personal workplace disputes except in limited instances. An employer will be deemed responsible for employee conduct that occurs within the “scope of employment” (or within a small “detour” from that scope). Intentional acts, however, generally do not fall within the scope of employment unless the position or workplace is one that makes such acts likely. For example, disparaging and defamatory posts by an employee generally do not fall within the scope of employment unless the employee’s job duties entail posting comments on social media. Similarly, physical confrontations generally do not fall within the scope of employment unless the job involves use of force as a duty, such as a police officer or bodyguard position.
Nevertheless, employers must be vigilant in supervising employees as they have a duty to maintain a safe workplace and will be liable for the results of conduct that they know, or reasonably should know, to be occurring. When misconduct is based on race or gender, or another protected category, employers will be deemed liable for employees’ tangible actions (such as firing a subordinate or expelling a customer), and for lesser harm when the company unreasonably fails to stop the misconduct. Additionally, employers can be held liable for negligently hiring or retaining employees with a known propensity toward harmful conduct.
While the “scope of employment” doctrine provides some protection, employers should seek counsel at the first sign of misconduct or harm stemming from an employee’s behavior in the workplace.