Employees gossiping about other employees can amount to harassment and bullying, creating a toxic work environment
Talking about other people behind their back is rarely considered good behaviour, and when it happens in the workplace, it crosses the line to being unprofessional. When employees gossip, it can do a lot of damage, so putting a lid on it is essential for management and HR to avoid the development of a toxic workplace.
The ‘no-gossip’ work policy
The best way to make it clear to employees that a certain type of conduct is unacceptable is to have a zero-tolerance policy that spells out the consequences of breaching it. When an employer takes a stand that something will not be tolerated, employees will think twice if the temptation arises.
A zero-tolerance policy doesn’t necessarily mean an employer can fire an employee who commits misconduct — just cause for dismissal usually depends on the severity of the misconduct. But it can establish that discipline is warranted and provide an element of deterrence.
Even if a no-gossip work policy isn’t zero-tolerance, a formal statement against workplace gossip can help reduce the chance that employees will engage in it and if they do, they can expect the employer to take action.
Can a person be fired for talking badly about a co-worker?
Gossip at work is likely to have negative effects on the person being gossiped about. It usually involves information that is either partly or completely untrue, or something private that the subject doesn’t want people at work to know. Disseminating such information, whether about someone’s professional career or personal life, is going to be unwanted — if it wasn’t, the subject would talk about it themselves.
Health and safety legislation requires employers to provide a safe workplace for employees and that includes protection from harassment and bullying. That means someone who is a harasser must be dealt with, and that could include discipline, separation from the subject of the gossip, or even removal from the workplace. Depending on the severity of the gossip and its effect, it could serve as just cause for dismissal.
The Ontario Employment Standards Act, 2000, for example, states that “Just cause for dismissal is defined as an employee who is guilty of misconduct, incompetence, or is underqualified for his or her duties that are critical to the employer’s business.” Participating in gossip that negatively affects a co-worker and the work environment could constitute such misconduct.
Office politics negatively affect productivity and collaboration, say experts.
When does gossip become a breach of confidentiality?
Sharing private, confidential information about other employees or the organization that the organization possesses will constitute a breach of confidentiality. Employers have a legal obligation to protect employees’ personal information, so anyone who doesn’t follow that obligation puts the employer at legal risk and could face serious discipline or termination.
This includes not just in-person gossip at work, but also sharing sensitive information through other methods such as online social media platforms.
When does gossip become harassment?
The federal government’s Policy on Harassment Prevention and Resolution defines harassment as “improper conduct by an individual, that is directed at and offensive to another individual in the workplace, including at any event or any location related to work, and that the individual knew or ought reasonably to have known would cause offence or harm. It comprises objectionable act(s), comment(s) or display(s) that demean, belittle, or cause personal humiliation or embarrassment, and any act of intimidation or threat.”
aWorkplace gossip can fall under this definition, which means that the employer is legally required to take action to protect workers from it. Even if one person who passes along gossip doesn’t have malicious intent, the originator of it may, particularly if the information isn’t true or is meant to harm someone’s reputation or career path. Either way, gossiping could be considered harassment and bullying of someone and open the door to legal action.
Gossip can create a toxic work environment
Gossip can be distracting to both the subject and the gossipers, leading to wasted time and lower productivity. It can cause workplace conflict, which can disrupt and interrupt work — not just for those directly involved but also others around them.
Gossip can also be demoralizing to the subject, who may find it increasingly difficult to focus on their work. Other people’s impressions of the worker could change, potentially fracturing relationships and creating anger and distrust — building to a toxic work culture.
A toxic work environment can lead to low employee morale, lower productivity, potential harassment or constructive dismissal lawsuits, and a higher turnover rate — which has been estimated to cost from 30 per cent of an annual salaried employee by Cornell University to as high as 150 per cent by PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Saratoga Institute. The damage of workplace gossip can be difficult and expensive to fix if allowed to flow freely through a workplace.
An Ontario municipality discriminated against a worker and was ordered by an arbitrator to pay her $1,000 in damages for allowing rumours about her to spread in the workplace.