Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt, once said, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” With all due respect, Alice, that could get you fired if you aren’t careful. Workplace gossip is a minefield of potential trouble that has indeed cost people their jobs.
Them’s firing words
When we talk about gossip that can lead to dismissal, we’re not referring to the idle water cooler chit-chat about last night’s episode of America’s Got Talent or debates about that blown call in the big game. That kind of gossip may eventually get you in trouble if it affects your productivity, but the most troublesome sort of gossip is about others in the workplace.
You may be sharing rumors about co-workers, speculating about the off-hours antics of your boss, or griping about company policy. If word gets around that you’re the one spreading the rumors, you may eventually be shown the door. Employers can and often do fire workers who gossip on the job.
Depending on the nature, intent and subject of the gossip, it can quickly rise to the level of workplace harassment or even defamation of character, in which case what started out as idle gossip becomes a violation of the law.
Defamation of character is when a person spreads false or derogatory information about another person, intentionally. Intent is the key element, as well as the information being false, for a claim of defamation of character to be valid. In some cases, claims of invasion of privacy can result from gossip at the office. Nevertheless, workplace gossip can still be grounds for termination if it creates enough problems for the employer or co-workers.
Gossip – like anything else that can create an unhealthy work environment, affect productivity and bring harm to others – is an issue that any employer would be wise to address as quickly as possible. Often, the best employees are the targets of gossip, as they can be victims of co-workers’ jealousy.
So it’s easy to see where gossip can bring down an office environment in a hurry. In the era of social media, word travels fast, and everyone knows of at least one person who lost their job over an ill-advised Facebook post or Instagram photo. The extent of the damage that can be done by spreading rumors digitally has compounded the problem for employers exponentially.
Workers now have to be careful about what they say in and out of the workplace to avoid the consequences of gossip. The line between personal and professional life has become blurred in the digital age. Gossip that you’ve shared online, in texts, emails or in writing not only spreads more quickly, but leaves evidence of the source for employers to use to justify dismissing you. Anything said or done that reflects poorly on the company can be sufficient grounds to terminate an employee.
Your boss can’t be faulted for questioning the judgment of an employee who’s given to spreading rumors. A gossip can spread false information maliciously or inadvertently, but the damages are often the same. Undoing those damages can be costly, at the expense of workplace harmony and lost revenues. Since they can be held liable for the spread of false information, some employers even include guidelines in their employee handbooks about spreading rumors. Not all gossip in the workplace should be discouraged, and some is even protected by law. For instance, workers are protected by law to discuss hours, wages, and work conditions.
The most effective defense against destructive workplace gossip is to have a healthy line of communication between company and employees, and an avenue through which workers can share grievances or questions. Employees are less likely to share false rumors when they have easy access to the right information.