Can an employee be held personally liable?

For the most part, you do not face personal liability for the employee actions you take at work — unless, of course, you commit a crime such as embezzlement, computer fraud, etc. However, your personal liability risk increases if you work as a supervisor, manager or other mid- or upper-level decision-maker, especially in your company’s Human Resources department. 

The HR Daily Advisor reports that more and more employment discrimination lawsuits are naming individual employees as defendants as well as the company itself. 

Federal employment laws 

If you have decision-making authority over such things as other employees’ wages and hours, raises, promotions, demotions, firings, layoffs, etc., many federal laws, including the following, consider you a de facto employer subject to personal liability for your actions: 

  • Fair Labor Standards Act 
  • Equal Pay Act 
  • Family and Medical Leave Act 
  • Employee Retirement Income Security Act 
  • Occupational Health and Safety Act 
  • Immigration Reform and Control Act 

California employment laws 

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act defines an employer as “any person or individual acting as an agent of an employer, directly or indirectly.” This extremely broad definition puts you as risk of personal liability for virtually any decision you make in the course of your job. 

California’s wage and hour laws likewise provide for employee personal liability, regardless of whether your actions complained of by a disgruntled employee in his or her lawsuit were willful or not. This puts you at substantial risk as you perform your day-to-day job functions. 

Finally, you face personal liability if a plaintiff wins his or her tort action; i.e., his or her claim that you defamed, assaulted or battered him or her or intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon him or her. Again, if you are an HR employee, your risk increases dramatically.