Gossip can turn even the most collegial workplace into a toxic environment if staff and leaders don't address water-cooler remarks, exaggerations and false accusations from the moment they become known. The grapevine can destroy the credibility and careers of both the person spreading the gossip and the person who's the subject of office gossip. In some cases, an employee's career can be brought to a screeching halt or perhaps destroyed if she's terminated for gossiping about her boss or anyone else in the company.
Employment at Will
Most private sector employers reserve the right to terminate the working relationship at any time, for any reason or for no reason, with or without advance notice. This means the employer doesn't need to prove the office gossip is spreading erroneous information about her boss. Just the fact that an employee is disrupting productivity and potentially damaging her boss's reputation is enough to let her go, without warning. The only time an employer can't exercise its rights under the at-will doctrine is when there's an employment agreement or if there's a union contract that prohibits at-will termination.
During new-employee orientation, a human resources department staffer or a seasoned employee from the same department usually explains the importance of corporate philosophy. For some companies, the philosophy is simple: mutual respect, sound business principles and a commitment to loyalty and workplace ethics. Gossip flies in the face of all of those tenets, making it difficult to concentrate on organizational goals, such as becoming a profitable business venture. For this reason alone, an employee who engages in gossip about anyone can be fired for ignoring the principles to which she agreed when she accepted the job. Bosses aren't entitled to any more respect as human beings than staff just because they have a higher position or rank. Office gossip is disruptive no matter who's the target or the instigator.
In some cases, an employee is accused of gossiping about her boss or rumored to be badmouthing her supervisor, yet it's not clear whether she was merely sharing secondhand information or actually conjuring up untruthful statements intended to be hurtful. This is a perfect opportunity for the HR department to get involved, either through counseling the employee about respectful behavior or explaining the consequences of spreading malicious statements about her supervisor -- or anyone for that matter. This is when an employer's hands might be tied, at least until HR can determine the source of the information and the employee's intent. The employee probably shouldn't be terminated until HR determines the root of the workplace gossip and the role that employee had in spreading it.
If the employer finds out that one employee is involved, chances are there are other employees involved because gossip isn't really gossip unless it spreads. Assuming the other employees can be identified, it's a good idea to meet with the entire staff to discuss how gossip affects the workplace. Before the company simply fires everyone involved, see if the message conveyed during the staff meeting has any effect on workplace gossip. And don't include the boss in the meeting; it could make him feel as if he needs to defend his honor.
Avoid firing an employee based on hearsay because that only makes the company culpable for relying on information that might not be true. This is counterproductive behavior at its best. The employee obviously is not going to report herself to the HR office and say that she's been gossiping about her boss. Therefore, don't terminate the employee to make an example of her or to show other employees what happens when an employee talks bad about the boss. It might quell the gossip for a while, but it won't eliminate the behavior or improve morale among employees.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.