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Water cooler chit-chat or poisoned work environment?

Office gossip can deteriorate to the point of harassment

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Have you heard the latest scoop on your co-workers?

If so, and it relates to something non-work-related, your workplace might have a problem. But solving such a problem may not be easy for the employer.

It’s natural for people to talk at work. When people are in the same place for eight hours or more, it can be expected to a certain extent. In cases where it’s a team environment, it’s probably better for workers to be able to casually chat with each other — a relaxed, friendly environment can contribute to a positive workplace culture and fuel productivity — as long as there’s a certain level of professionalism maintained.

However, such chatting can cross the line into gossip, which can lead to hurt feelings distractions for workers — and possibly a poisoned workplace with the threat of harassment. Employers can take steps to address gossip and potential harassing circumstances, but taking the wrong approach can be just as damaging as the problem.

As in any situation where there’s potential harassment, employers must investigate fairly and reasonably before coming to any conclusions and taking action. Failure to do so risks either unfairly sanctioning someone or not properly protecting a victim of harassment.

One Alberta employer found itself with a workplace where a group of employees were thought to be gossiping about a couple of workers in particular and things had escalated to complaints of harassment. In particular, a male and female worker who were friends were the subject of rumours they were having an affair. Thing got to the point where the female worker complained her tools were sabotaged and other workers had made inappropriate comments about her. Things reached a head when someone delivered letters to the two workers’ spouses about the affair rumours.

The employer investigated the sabotage complaint and the interviews of several employees revealed stories of arguments and harassing acts. One employee in particular, who didn’t get along with either worker, was looked at closely because, as a long-term and vocal employee, he was considered a leader of the group of workers thought to be responsible for the harassment. The female worker also reported this employee had blocked her way in the warehouse with his forklift and called her a name. However, her story was inconsistent and the employee denied it.

The employer suspended the employee for five days for violating its harassment policy. However, the suspension didn’t stand when an arbitrator evaluated it. The arbitrator agreed with the employee’s contention that he was unfairly singled out as a harasser when the real problem was with the culture of gossip and harassing behaviour by the group of employees as a whole.

There was no proof the suspended employee was responsible for the equipment sabotage or letter delivery, and the instances of inappropriate comments were only from hearsay from other employees — which often didn’t corroborate each other’s versions. In addition, the female worker’s account of the employee blocking her with his forklift weren’t convincing and likely not intentional, as the employee explained, said the arbitrator. See
Federated Co-operatives Ltd. and Miscellaneous Employees Teamsters of Alberta, Local 987 (Mangawang), Re, 2014 CarswellAlta 2207 (Alta. Arb.).

In circumstances above, the employer sought to put an end to what it perceived as a problem with harassment of certain employees, but its investigation was based on hearsay and secondhand evidence — which resulted in it finding a scapegoat. However, the gossiping and harassing behaviour were more widespread and suspending one employee for the problem was not only unfair, but unlikely to resolve the problem and change the workplace culture.

What is the best way to deal with office gossip that could be affecting the workplace environment? Strike at individual offenders or take a holistic approach to changing the culture?

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Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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