Why managers need to be hot on gossip in the workplace
Gossiping at work may be intended as harmless among co-workers, but it has the potential to negatively impact working relations and workplace culture overall.
In this guide for employers and managers, we look at what the law says on workplace gossip, and how gossiping can impact both the workforce and the organisation if not managed properly.
What counts as gossiping at work?
Gossiping at work refers to informal conversations or exchanges typically about other people’s personal or professional issues, without those people being aware of the discussions.
Gossiping could be about what other employees are doing in their personal lives, from cheating to getting divorced, to what happened at the Friday night team drinks.
Gossiping at work can also include rumours about the business itself. For example, staff may criticise a manager’s actions or speculate about the company’s future or whether co-workers will get fired.
However, there can be a fine line between what could be considered ‘harmless’ and talk which is potentially hurtful, harmful or offensive.
To some, unacceptable gossiping at work means only malicious talk about someone ‘behind their back’ and beyond that person’s hearing, or talk that is untrue, such as spreading false rumours. To others, gossip can include any talk of a person’s or organisation’s affairs, whether personal or professional, innocuous or slanderous.
Either way, if the gossip is hurting someone’s feelings or causing conflict, that is when the line could be considered to have been crossed and the employer may have to intervene and take action.
Gossiping – talking or by email?
Gossiping at work might be a one-off isolated incident or a course of conduct over a prolonged period of time. It can take place face-to-face, during phone calls, in emails or online chats, or via text, WhatsApp or social media. It can also occur during or outside of working hours.
Gossip via e-mail can be an especially risky mode of gossiping because messages may be easily forwarded to unintended recipients. Equally, staff often treat e-mail communications like oral conversations, saying things that they would never state in a letter or memorandum. As a result of this informality, people tend to use poor judgment when writing e-mails, for example, by including defamatory language, opinions contrary to company policy, messages against company interests or poorly chosen content with an inflammatory tone.
Impact of gossiping at work
In practice, gossiping at work can result in poor employee engagement and performance, together with increased rates of absenteeism. In some cases, persistent gossip could lead to work-related stress, amounting to a potential breach of the employer’s duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees at work, including their mental wellbeing.
In extreme cases, where gossiping at work is especially serious or persistent, this can result in valued personnel leaving the organisation, if they feel forced to resign rather than continue to suffer being talked about. If the employer fails to take reasonable steps to put a stop to malicious or unwanted gossiping, and someone resigns because of this, that person may have a claim for constructive dismissal. This is because any failure on the part of the employer to prevent gossiping at work can result in a breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence between the parties, causing irreparable damage to the employment relationship.
Other negative consequences of workplace gossip are distrust and conflict among coworkers, low workforce morale, increased anxiety as rumours circulate without clear information as to what is fact and what is not, divisiveness among staff as people take sides about what is being gossiped about, hurt feelings and reputations, undermined authority and credibility, and lost productivity and wasted time. When it comes to gossip about the business, such as rumours about layoffs and redundancies, this could lead to the loss of several members of staff who may start looking for jobs, even though their existing roles are not actually at risk.
Gossiping at work could also potentially expose the employer to claims for unlawful discrimination. However, evidentially speaking, it may be difficult for the subject of the gossip to prove what has been said about them and by whom, and that this relates to a protected characteristic that either they possess or are thought to possess. Still, gossiping is a form of bullying in the workplace that can give rise to other serious legal and practical risks, both for the individual being talked about and the business as a whole.
Is gossiping at work misconduct?
Gossiping at work that is harmful or false likely to be considered a form of bullying and may give rise to misconduct action, in line with the organisation’s policy on conduct and discipline. In addition, while bullying is not of itself a legally actionable claim, it can sometimes amount to harassment under the Equality Act 2010.
The 2010 Act affords all workers protection against unwanted conduct or unfair treatment that relates to certain protected characteristics, where that conduct has the effect of violating their dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. The protected characteristics under the Act for the purposes of harassment include age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. This means that if an individual is the subject of gossiping at work that serves to violate their dignity or create a hostile working environment for them because they possess any one of these characteristics, this will amount to unlawful discriminatory conduct.
Examples of gossiping at work that could amount to harassment could be where the gossip is about the possibility that a co-worker has had a sex change, whether a manager is gay, or the age and sexual preferences of the new receptionist. Even if the gossip is not intended to be malicious, the effects of this behaviour can still easily cause offence or create a hostile working environment for the subject of the gossip or anyone else within earshot.
Should gossiping at work be prohibited?
It is only natural for staff to get to know each other through casual conversation, as it can be good for business if staff get along well. Managers should also expect a certain amount of ‘low level’ gossip, as people want to know what is going on in their workplace, and they often like discussing work issues, provided that this is not malicious, unpleasant or personal.
However, over time and especially during idle hours, office gossip which is hurtful, harmful or offensive can start to rear its ugly head. Sadly, this is a toxic part of all too many workplaces. If gossiping at work goes unchecked or is not adequately managed, this can have a serious knock-on effect on the success of a business and the employer brand, not least where any gossip turns nasty. The key is to know when gossip is becoming out-of-hand, and when action should be taken if any gossiping at work is, or is thought to be:
- disrupting the workplace and creating a toxic workplace culture
- damaging interpersonal and professional relationships
- hurting staff feelings or reputations
- demotivating employees and lowering individual or workforce morale
- resulting in decreased performance and productivity
- resulting in increased absenteeism
- undermining the authority and credibility of managers or team leaders.
Can employers impose a no-gossip policy?
Imposing a no-gossip policy at work can be tricky, not least because it can be difficult to define what amounts to gossip and to illustrate all of the circumstances in which gossiping at work can arise. Equally, an employer cannot prohibit its workforce from ever discussing another person that they work with, where any policy that seeks to ban staff from making negative or disparaging comments or criticisms about anyone at work would be unnecessarily wide. For example, a no-gossip policy should not be aimed at the odd comment that a team leader is ‘hard-nosed’, although it could legitimately be used to prohibit any comment that they ‘drink every day at lunch’, as this could undermine that individual’s authority and credibility.
Any policy should explicitly state that it is not intended to limit the right of staff to talk about legitimate workplace issues, or to censor all talk about co-workers or managers, but rather it is aimed at gossip about non-work related or personal issues. Beyond that, employers must decide where the line is between innocuous banter among coworkers and conversations that could lead to legitimate concerns about health, welfare or harassment.
In broad terms, it is important for employers to make staff aware of the disruptive and damaging nature of discussing the private or personal affairs of others at work, or creating and repeating rumours about either another person or the company. It is also important that staff are made aware of the potential consequences of unacceptable gossip, both for the business and the subject of the gossip, and for them in terms of any disciplinary or dismissal proceedings. By making it clear that gossip will not be tolerated in the workplace, this can go a long way to eradicating this type of unwanted conduct and creating a zero-tolerance culture.
How should gossiping at work be managed?
Where gossiping at work goes unchecked or is badly handled, this can create serious problems for a business and the employer brand, and greater exposure to the risk of claims for constructive dismissal and unlawful discrimination. However, the following best practice advice can help employers and managers to promote a positive working environment.
Provide staff training
When providing staff training on bullying and harassment, gossiping at work should be incorporated into this training as an illustrative example of unwanted conduct, educating the workforce on the impact and consequences of gossip. This training can focus on the content of any no-gossip policy, making staff aware of the existence of the policy and where this can be accessed for future reference.
Take allegations of gossiping at work seriously
Staff should feel confident that any complaints of gossip will be taken seriously and fully investigated. These types of complaints can often be dealt with informally, by way of a quiet word with those responsible, but where the problem persists or is especially serious, staff should be encouraged to lodge a formal grievance. Employers should then promptly and impartially investigate the matter with a view to instigating disciplinary proceedings against the perpetrators(s). Employers should also not shy away from a decision to dismiss anyone responsible for persistent gossiping following written warnings, as one toxic person can drive out several good employees.
Foster a positive workplace culture
There are several ways employers can foster a positive workplace culture, and even restore positive working relationships damaged by gossiping at work. For example, team building activities that require co-operation are an effective way of encouraging staff to get along and to trust each other, and to put an end to any conflict. Having an open plan office can also lead to more effective and positive communication, since separate offices and secret alcoves can become gossip spots. Finally, regular supervision, such as weekly one-to-one and team meetings, can provide staff with the opportunity to air any concerns to avoid the need for unacceptable gossip.
Gossiping at work FAQs
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.