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What Can HR Do about Workplace Gossip?

Let's face it. We're living in a society that's fascinated, if not obsessed, with the private lives of other people. As much as you may want to deny it, you know you've looked at the National Enquirer more than once—even if it was just while you were waiting in the grocery store checkout line. You've also got to admit that you've even gossiped a time or two about people you actually know.

But do you sometimes feel that you're dealing with a bunch of middle-school students rather than a workforce made up of adults? Workplace gossip can cause a host of problems, not only for the individual employees involved but also for your organization as a whole. What, if anything, should you do about the gossipmongers among your workforce?

Problems Created by Workplace Gossip

If your employees are spending a significant amount of time gathered around the water cooler gossiping about their co-workers or your organization in general, they obviously aren't working. In today's world, chats around the water cooler likely have been replaced by e-mail or instant messaging, both quick and easy ways to communicate with colleagues. No matter how it's done, gossip decreases productivity in your workplace. Simply put, gossip is a productivity drain: If you're gossiping, you're not working.

In addition to distracting employees from their work, gossip can cause problems between co-workers. Certainly, the person who's the subject of the rumors may be reluctant to work with people he believes are participating in the gossip. Also, employees may take sides and form cliques (just like in middle school). All of that may result in the breakdown of the trust level among your employees and the demise of teamwork. Management, in turn, may be spending way too much time dealing with conflicts among employees, causing additional stress for everyone.

How else might gossip affect your workplace? A few years ago in California, an employee who claimed she suffered from depression as a result of workplace gossip filed for workers' comp benefits. Holding that gossip about an employee's personal life isn't part of the employment relationship, the court found the employee wasn't entitled to benefits for her injury. A different venue and different facts could lead to a different result. While gossip shouldn't support a workers' comp claim, it could very well provide key evidence of other unlawful conduct like harassment or discrimination. Thus, gossip could increase your exposure to legal liability.

What about electronic bulletin and message boards or employee blogging ? First of all, because of the free-speech issues involved, there are limits on what employers can and can't require of their employees. Just remember that blogs and electronic message boards present a myriad of legal and practical issues, including disclosure of trade secrets, slander, libel and defamation claims, invasion of privacy lawsuits, and harassment claims.

A few years ago, a court held that an employer that sets up an electronic bulletin board may be liable for electronic defamation if the communication in question is sufficiently linked to its business and it knew that defamatory statements were being made but did nothing. Although the court didn't impose a duty to monitor each employee's mail, e-mail, or phone conversations, it did rule that employers have the duty to stop harassing messages once they're made aware of them.

Malicious gossip also can lead to employee turnover. Whether you have many gossipers in your workplace or perhaps only a few, your good employees—those who don't partake in the chatter—may find the work atmosphere unhealthy or stressful. As a result, they might very well decide to leave your organization. You certainly don't want to lose your most valued employees because your workplace is permeated with gossip and rumors that you've routinely overlooked.

Finally, your employees' gossip may be directed at your organization itself rather than at specific co-workers. Workplace gossip may cause miscommunications or misunderstandings, which in turn could lead to missed deadlines, work errors, and unhappy clients and customers.

What Can HR Do?

Certainly, it's impossible to have a gossip-free workplace. Like it or not, gossip is a part of our society. Given its negative impact on your workplace, however, there are steps you can take to reduce employee gossip.

One thing employees may gossip about is what management is or isn't doing. Rather than allowing speculation to turn into misinformation, consider communicating regularly with your employees about what's going on in your workplace, at least about things that don't have to remain confidential for some reason. Open communication may stop some of the rumormongers from making up information. Moreover, the gossipers' influence will be minimized because everyone—or at least those who need to be—will be "in-the-know." When employees believe they have sufficient information, they'll spend less time gossiping and more time working.

Many employment handbooks contain "open communication policies" that encourage employees to discuss any issue they might have with a coworker first and then go to a supervisor if they can't resolve the issue. The policy also should remind employees that it's counterproductive to a harmonious workplace to create or repeat corporate rumors or office gossip and it's more constructive to consult a supervisor with any questions.

Educating your employees about what exactly gossip means as well as the negative impact it can have on your workplace may also work wonders in squelching it. Sometimes when employees understand precisely what gossip is and how harmful it can be, they'll change their ways. (Bear in mind that when dealing with public employees, you need to consider free speech and other First Amendment rights if the speech or "gossip" is about a matter of public concern. Employees' rights under the National Labor Relations Act could also be implicated.)

In addition to training your employees and advising them that negative and malicious gossiping and rumors are unacceptable, address the issue in your code of conduct or your disciplinary policy. For example, spreading malicious gossip and rumors as well as engaging in behavior that creates discord and threatens harmony may be included in your list of unacceptable activities that are subject to discipline. Employees found to be in violation of the policy may be subject to progressive discipline, depending on your policy.

Additionally, you may want to consider a separate unambiguous instant message and blogging policy that prohibits employees from making statements about your organization, their coworkers, and your customers, competitors, agents, or partners that could be considered harassing, threatening, libelous, or defamatory in any way.

Bottom Line

Gossip is a part of life. Although HR can't completely eradicate it from the workplace, you can take steps to control and contain workplace gossipers. Using solid communication channels, providing training, and implementing workplace policies may help you turn the office grapevine into a positive tool for your organization.

Excerpted from West Virginia Employment Law Letter and written by attorneys at the law firms of Steptoe & Johnson PLLC and published on HRhero.com, a website created by M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC.Copyright 2009 by M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC and reprinted with permission.


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