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Going After Gossip

July 7, 2009
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Related Topics: Miscellaneous Legal Issues, Harassment, Policies and Procedures, Featured Article
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In this economic downturn, employees are fearful about losing pay, benefits or their very jobs. Not surprisingly, these concerns can translate into water-cooler discussions about who may be next to get the ax or who is making how much money. In fact, executive bonuses, compensation and perks are not just the topic of idle chatter. They are headline news. And what used to be talk around the office is now ferried by e-mail, text messages, IMs, blogs and Twitter. Word can spread beyond the company walls instantly, to virtually anyone. Recently, layoffs at a large law firm were widely publicized before they had been internally announced, thanks to a firm shareholder whose cell phone discussion was overhead on a subway. At a time when companies are facing serious business challenges, office gossip is yet another hurdle that must be cleared.

Gossip generally takes two forms. It can consist of rumors about company changes such as mergers, layoffs, managerial promotions or staffing changes. Or, it can be personal gossip, centered on who in the organization is doing well, having an affair or grappling with personal problems. Gossip is a behavior that we all engage in at some point, and it sometimes serves to cement personal bonds. But both kinds of rumor mongering—business gossip and personal gossip—can be detrimental to the workplace. Here are some of its effects:

Time wasted: The time spent on office gossip, whether about personal issues or possible company changes, can take away from time that should be devoted to work. Individual employee effectiveness is obviously hindered when a great deal of time is spent on office gossip. Additionally, the morale of the employee who is the focus of gossip will decrease, along with that employee’s ability to be productive. Even seemingly casual remarks between co-workers can disrupt an otherwise peaceful office.

Legal liability: Office gossip that targets individuals, based on legally protected characteristics such as race, age, sexuality, gender, pregnancy or disability, can expose the company to legal action for violation of anti-discrimination laws, harassment laws and other civil rights statutes. Assuming that the gossip is not true, there also may be a cause of action for defamation. If an employee’s confidential health information is the subject of gossip, there may be a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Management breakdown: If management takes no action in response to injurious office gossip, or—even worse—if management participates in the gossip, employees may view management as completely ineffective. Employees may also assume that inaction means that other kinds of misbehavior—such as harassment or discrimination—also will be ignored or even tacitly encouraged.

Employee and third-party reaction: If employees hear that the company is considering layoffs or may be in financial jeopardy, they may begin to look for other employment. The employees who will most easily find other employment opportunities are probably the very people the company would most like to retain. Additionally, if rumors of financial failure or other negative performance indicators of the company become public knowledge, the stock price could be affected. The media’s interest may be whetted, and—depending on the industry—governmental agencies may even begin investigating.

Fortunately, there are solutions for the pernicious effects of gossip and rumor. Here are some of them:

Communicate: Since employees’ natural curiosity regarding the affairs of the company will never be eliminated, the company should fill the void by communicating. Managers must set aside time to regularly deal with the employees as a group or as individuals to quickly reveal decisions—such as office relocation, promotions or layoffs—that may cause some anxiety. Companywide meetings are also a good approach. These give employees opportunities to ask questions and voice concerns about rumors that they have heard. When questions arise and employees are unable to approach management for information, that’s when the gossip mill will start spinning.

Confront rumors: Organizations should deal with rumors promptly, particularly when they involve individual employees and personal topics. Management should be direct but tactful, talking to employees involved, individually and in a group. Management should listen to both sides, set up one-on-one meetings between the injured party and anyone involved in spreading the rumor, and schedule follow-up meetings for everyone who might have been involved. One tool that is especially useful is having an employee hot line where concerns can be reported immediately and confidentially. The existence of such a hot line can be helpful if the organization has to defend itself in any litigation that results from employee rumor-mongering.

Develop policies: Companies are wise to develop broad ethics, company values and professionalism policies that outline appropriate behavior and actions at work. Additionally, the company should have an electronic communications policy that prohibits the sending of messages that may be considered harassing or otherwise inappropriate. Finally, the company should have a policy that prohibits all employees from communicating any confidential information regarding the company to any third party in any form, including electronic communications.

Another wise move is to build performance evaluation systems that measure the effectiveness of employees’ communication skills. These expectations should be passed along through meetings, counseling or during annual reviews. Employees who are spreading rumors should be warned that their behavior is not acceptable and may lead to termination.

Developing a specific policy to deal with gossip and rumors is next to impossible. Although certain comments might be clearly inappropriate, others may be within a gray area. And there is one very important cautionary note: It is an unfair labor practice for any employer to prevent employees from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment, which includes compensation and who may be affected by an impending layoff. If the employer does tell employees that they may not discuss these issues among themselves, they would be subject to action by the National Labor Relations Board. That action may include being required to post notices informing employees that they in fact have the right to hold these discussions.

The lies, rumors and gossip spread by certain employees can hurt reputations and could even sink a company. Honesty and consistency in communication is the key to avoiding these perils. It is essential, especially in these times, for companies to set appropriate boundaries and a tone of mutual respect.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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