Question:

I am frustrated with my employees lately. It seems that there is constant workplace drama about who’s dating who, who said what about whoever else, you name it. I feel like I spend half my time addressing gossip and hurt feelings. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle this behavior in the workplace?

Answer:

Workplace gossip is nothing new, but it doesn’t seem to be going away either. In fact, this kind of conduct may actually have increased in recent years due to changes in technology and how employees interact with one another. What was once referred to as “water cooler talk” is now being seen much more frequently in the context of emails and instant messages, both of which provide quick, easy, and potentially discreet ways for employees to communicate with one another.

Apart from the annoyance factor of having employees bring inappropriate personal issues into the office, employee gossip can have a serious impact on the workplace. Employees who are distracted by gossip are not productive employees. Whether your employees are emailing each other or chatting at the copier, their productivity is being negatively affected, and reduced productivity translates into increased costs for employers.

In addition to the undesirable effects that workplace gossip can have on your bottom line, it can also create a problematic work environment. Employees who are the subject of gossip may feel they are being unfairly picked on or targeted, which can lead to claims of discrimination. Gossip that involves dating or office romances also has the potential to create a hostile or offensive work environment, which can form the basis for a sexual harassment claim. These situations increase an employer’s potential exposure to legal liability, and can lead to very costly lawsuits.
Employees may also be unwilling to work with one another because of rumors or gossip. This can lead to employees “choosing sides,” which has a negative impact on the teamwork and office camaraderie that most employers strive to foster. In addition, employees who are disgruntled or who feel dissatisfied at work are inclined to spend time talking about it with their coworkers.

You indicated that you are spending a great deal of time addressing the negative consequences of employee gossip. This is another common problem for employers, whose management employees are often forced to devote time that should be spent working to resolving workplace squabbles instead. This can be stressful for managers, and once again has a negative impact on productivity.

So what can employers like you do to stop these problems from permeating your workplace? For starters, you might consider implementing a handbook policy that reminds employees that spreading rumors or gossip is not productive, and that inappropriate rumormongering and gossiping is against your business’ code of conduct and may lead to disciplinary action. While you will want to keep your employees’ First Amendment rights in mind when implementing such a policy, you are within your rights to prevent harmful, malicious, or degrading speech about another person, and are likewise permitted to curtail the discussion of confidential or sensitive workplace information. Note that, in addition to free speech concerns, you will want to be sure that your policies do not violate the National Labor Relations Act, which forbids employers from interfering with employees’ rights relating to organizing, forming, joining or assisting a labor organization for collective-bargaining purposes, or engaging in certain protected activities.

In conjunction with a code of conduct policy, you can take disciplinary action against employees if their on-the-job performance is being negatively impacted by workplace gossip. Employees who are performing at a substandard level can be disciplined for not getting their work done, as can employees who are ignoring their work in favor of chatting with co-workers. You can also take disciplinary action against employees who use office resources (phones, computers, etc.) for personal rather than business-related purposes.

Another way to limit workplace gossip is to facilitate a workplace where employees feel positive about one another and their environment, which will in turn help to cut down on the amount of negative chatter. You may want to consider an open communication policy whereby information is readily shared with employees so that they feel they are “in the loop.” When employees feel that they are informed about their work environment, they tend to spend less time gossiping and more time working. In addition, encouraging your employees to bring workplace issues to your attention right away (as opposed to stewing over them and talking amongst themselves) can also help keep gossip at bay.
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