I just read a fabulous article by Rick Roller at the examiner.com entitled “GOSSIP, the Virus in Your Workplace.” Mr. Roller’s insights about how destructive gossip is in the workplace and why employers need to deal with it as early as possible struck a chord, especially in light of our recent discussions about workplace bullying.
From a legal standpoint, there can be some issues with how employers address gossip. In Mr. Roller’s situation, he wound up not having to directly address the situation, but in case you do, here are some guidelines for avoiding liability:
- Tell employees to “shut and go back to work” — Although this may be tempting, it is not usually effective if the only communication you have on gossip is this. They will simply wait until you are not around and resume gossiping.
- Tell an employee who is complaining that others are gossiping about him or her to “quit being a crybaby and go back to work.” — First, this does nothing to alleviate the problem. Second, it signals to an employee that there is no value in complaining about anything. This may sound like a marvelous idea but could mean that employees do not complain about harassment, discrimination, or retaliation until long after they have a legal cause of action. By that point, it will be too late to remedy the problem and avoid legal liability.
- Tell employees to “break up the hen party and go back to work.” — Hopefully, by now, you’ve read enough of our posts on “code words” to realize the problem with this. If not, “hen party” can be viewed as being derogatory to female employees.
- Explain to employees that if they have issues or questions about policies in the workplace that they need to discuss those with the appropriate person, whether that is a manager or Human Resources. Employers do need to be careful about how this message is delivered so that it does not appear that you are forbidding employees from engaging in “concerted activity” by talking to their co-workers about the terms and conditions of work.
- Make it clear to employees that it is a violation of your policies for them to be speculating about their co-workers’ personal or sex lives — In a world where soap operas and reality television shows dig into juicy details of affairs and rumors of divorce, a lot of employees continue that drama at work by gossiping about co-workers. Some, like what I assume was really behind the “star” employee’s behavior in Mr. Roller’s situation, seem to think that bad-mouthing their co-workers is how they are going to be seen as exceptional. Complaints of harassment have arisen where employees have speculated, for example, that another employee “slept their way to the top.”
- Try to get employees to be empathetic to other employees’ situations — Remind employees that they do not like to be publicly disciplined and how that feels when everyone is making fun of them for screwing up. One of the more damaging types of gossip is the rumor mill that someone is getting disciplined or fired. First, it could be true, but the fact that everyone is gossiping about it makes it difficult to get the disciplined employee to accept the discipline. Second, and more damaging, the rumor is not true. This is where employees get ideas that their bosses are “out to get them.” Since the employees know they have not done anything wrong, they start to assume that the only reason is their age, race, the fact that they complained of harassment or recently took a leave, etc. is the reason for the fact that their supervisors are out to get them.
The bottom line is, no matter how difficult the discussion may be, allowing gossip to flow through the workplace is far more damaging to productivity than trying to pretend it is not happening. So, cowboy/cowgirl up, and address the situation head-on.