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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?

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Problems created by workplace gossip
If your employees are spending a significant amount of time gathered around the water cooler gossiping about their coworkers 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 In today’s world, chats around the water cooler likely have been replaced by e-mail or instant messaging, both quick and easy ways to communicate with colleagues.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 coworkers. 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 coworkers. Workplace gossip may cause miscommunications or misunderstandings, which in turn could lead to missed deadlines, work errors, and unhappy clients and customers.

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What can human resources do about the chatter?
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.

15 thoughts on “What Can HR Do About Workplace Gossip?”

  1. I quite my job after a year for none stop gossip and harassment against me. I would put it in writing and also give verbal complaints to my Administrator. She did nothing. I also had the HR of the company step in and also this ended with a blind eye or should I say with eyes only for the ones causing the gossip. You see I was a newcomer to the group and I was pray to them because I did not conform to their destructive group. This left me backed against the wall and sever stress within my work place. Sad that it is the state of Maine does not enforce any type of recall in the manor the law states it is supposed to do and this leaves a person like myself helpless. I also was turned down by unemployment while looking for a new position. They stated in my denial letter I had no good reason why I left my job. This is a shame that we as victims of hateful, hurtful and downright harassing gossip that we have to fall victim to the unemployment power as well. I have only received unemployment once in my life in the early eighties and I feel that no matter what goes on in a work place you have no voice as the victim. This law has got to be sternly enforced so us dedicated hard working employees keep their jobs and have a safe place of employment and those doing the gossip and harassment no matter what position they hold looses their job if they continue to act in that kind of manor. I would like to know who is going to step up to the plate and get the game going??? I sure would like to be on your team. God Bless and help all of you in my position. May the Lord grant us victory over this large and inflated problem we so do not deserve to have been victim to.

  2. As unfortunate as office gossip is, we do have freedom of speech in this country. I think Lestina handled it correctly. She didn’t like what was happening at her workplace so she complained to her supervisor. Getting no satifaction, she left the company.
    Unfortunately it is not governments responsibility to limit what can and cannot be said. But by acting the way she did, maybe the company will do something about it.

  3. When a person is engaged in gossip, they are not performing their job duties and they are also keeping the person or persons they are gossiping with from working as well. Gossip is unkind and costly and does not belong in the workplace. Sure, we have freedom of speech, but when we work for someone we are obligated to do our jobs.

  4. All the solutions suggested are rather weak.They don’t really solve anything, but only drive the gossip mongers ‘undercover’.
    We need to remember that people who spread gossip often have hidden agendas, they don’t spread gossip by accident, their primary intention is to disrupt the workplace and other people’s lives.

    I would suggest solutions which do not appear to protect people who lie about others and spread slander.A disciplinary procedure might humiliate someone but it’s a mere slap on the wrist, the person can go on with their life as before.

    Given that workplace gossip can lead to stress,depression,resignations,family feuds,divorce, attempted suicide — it should be taken more seriously. Don’t excuse it as part of life because you also take part in it and don’t want to feel bad about yourself.

    Gossip makes other people feel like crap. It’s contagious and breeds more gossipers.Revenge is not uncommon with rivals mercilessly gossiping about one another to see who will ‘come out tops’.It can create a toxic, unhealthy workplace where even HR Managers are afraid, yes afraid, to interact with their fellow colleagues.

    I suggest a strict no negative gossip policy which all employees should be made aware of upon being hired. It should be strictly enforced by HR, meaning that gossip will not be tolerated among members of the HR dept.Written warnings should be third-party delivered to any employee caught engaging in gossip,the 3rd warning letter being accompanied by a letter of dismissal.That’s the only way.

    I have a young female relative who suffered childhood sexual abuse at the hands of another relative. She’s young and bright. Some people were not happy with that so they started gossiping about her abuse — like it was something she could have prevented. I had to watch a vibrant young woman become depressed,bitter, lonely and angry in front of my eyes.She quit her job and confessed to me that she wouldn’t look for another one because she was AFRAID that the gossip would follow her.After months of a steady downward spiral she tried to take her own life, by the grace of God she didn’t succeed.I ran a small business and let her come work there when she feels like it,otherwise she lives off her parents but I don’t know how long that will last because they are elderly.
    One day I took the time to ask someone what happened to the people who gossiped about her. They still work at that company. Some of them have been promoted.

    This is just one of many stories like this. Do you still think gossip is just part of life?

  5. Believe it or not, gossip can be an extunating circumstance that can turn into what is called a Hostile Work Environment, and employers can be held liable for employee, or anyone in the company that is allowed to create a Hostile Work Environment.

  6. Managers who allow employees to come to them with routine complaints about coworkers anonymously destroy the trust in their department.

    In a good manager’s office, if an employee comes to them and says “so-and-so is doing this” the first words out of the manager’s mouth should be “have you discussed it with them?” If the answer is no, then it should go no farther.

    When managers allow themselves to become a place where employees can complain about other employees it creates an environment where the frequent complainers gain a sense of power over management and others.

    I was recently informed by a lead that a coworker (not named) complained to a manager that I’m on the internet all the time and don’t have enough work on my desk. Despite the fact that it’s not true and the lead assured me that they don’t check up on that, my reputation with my manager is tarnished, people are talking about me behind my back and I feel like I cannot trust anyone in my department any longer.

  7. we need a law that stop gossip so you don’t have to keep quitting your job cause jobs are hard to find when having to take care of their kids .

  8. I work in a Salon, where sales a significant to ones pay check. I have found that when new hires come in the senior staff picks on the ones that they are intimidated by, using one senior stylist to attack that person with illrelevent comments and untrue accusations. No one will addmitt to thier plaquting of the two stylist, which makes it hard for the other stlist to work in a hostile environment and makes everyone nervous about thier jobs and positions.

  9. I couldn’t disagree more with ‘cc’ that a manager shouldn’t allow employees to come to them with complaints about coworkers – that managers should say, “Have you discussed it with them?” and if the answer is no, the discussion should go no further. Often, coworkers discussing problems just becomes a bigger problem. The manager’s office MUST be a place where employees can go to complain about coworkers, stating their experiences, what they see and feel, and even their opinions. It’s the manager’s job to get to the truth, communicate with all parties involved, and diffuse the situation and any anger that may be growing because of the situation.

  10. It’s not illegal to gossip in the workplace; the first amendment says so. If the press can gossip while they are on the job so can we. While it may hurt someone, these days, it is not right or wrong but simply a mutual activity. Even the one who is being gossiped about is most likely gossiping about someone else too. Most people these days gossip, it’s a way of life today, unfortunately. Management cannot cut employee hours or fire employees for gossip. Look up the whistleblower law. It permits you to talk in the workplace, especially if something is bothering you, and you need to vent, and management won’t listen to you.

  11. Lol, David you must be a rumor monger. The bottom line is that gossip in the workplace is unprofessional and childish. Nobody has the right to come to work to create a hostile environment for others because of freedom of speech. I really hope that you are a young person because your reasoning is really limited.

  12. David is clearly a whistle blower and a gossip. The first amendment was NOT created for people like you to use as an excuse to tattle or gossip. A negative and disrespectful hostile work environment is not “protected” by an amendment meant for us to be free to speak up against an oppressive government. Find another excuse for your ignorance.

  13. Not all allegations of harrassment are true , I have friend who got a warning and threats of instant dismissal just because someone claimed that she was spreading rumours and added other things that weren’t true she was only speaking her mind and protecting the jobs of her co-workers.
    Essentially she was setup even management tricked her into signing a document she only signed it because she thought they were on her side.

    In the workplace trust no one.

  14. It’s true David doesn’t have a clue about the effects of a hostile work environment.
    I agree there needs to be a company policy with a disciplinary procedure in place and lots of communication within to help discourage and minimize this sort of thing. A good company can loose really good employees because of jealousy from the catty women within the department. Gossip can create negative actions toward the one person who is trying their best to get along and do the best job. Aside from The First Amendment, there needs to be a strong company policy in place with firm discipline attached. Especially when the gossip is coming from your supervisor.

    A work place should be harmonious as far as getting along with the ones you work closely with.

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