Rumors and gossip are an inevitable part of office life, but when the information making the rounds is false and harmful, it may qualify as slander, and it must be stopped. Employers face risks from slander because employees may sue for lack of protection, particularly if they believe they are being targeted due to gender, race, age or sexual orientation.
Slander is more than bad press; it's a legally punishable false oral statement that harms a person’s reputation or career. The legal definition differs from one state to another, but generally the perpetrator must have malicious intent or must have spread the falsehood through some form of negligence. Teasing, name-calling and snide remarks are inappropriate, but they don’t rise to the level of slander. Rumors can constitute slander, but only if they are false and serious enough to cause harm. For example, “Jane is stealing money from the cash drawer,” if untrue would qualify as slander, but “Jane’s husband is filthy rich,” is not slander even if it's not true.
If you are a manager and an employee reports slander to you, start by asking for confirmation. Make clear that you’re not questioning the veracity of her statement, but you need evidence in case the perpetrator denies having made the remark. Evidence may include emails with hostile remarks or tone and e-calendar entries that provide evidence that the victim was excluded from important meetings. You also may wish to interview other employees to determine if anyone can corroborate that the alleged perpetrator made such statements.
Confronting the Perpetrator
Once you’ve reviewed the evidence, call the alleged perpetrator in for a private meeting. Ask him to describe his relationship with the victim. Then, ask if he has been spreading rumors about this person. If he denies it, confront him with the evidence. Make clear that gossip – whether true or not – is harmful to the team. Instruct him to apologize to the victim and warn him that any further incidents will result in serious consequences.
The best way to control slander is to make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place. Make clear to your subordinates that malicious talk about others is not acceptable. Create a culture of respect by demonstrating that all employees are valued, no matter what their differences or deficiencies. Tell your team members that you expect them to help co-workers build skills and overcome their shortcomings, rather than criticizing them for what they’re not able to do. Okay, you'll probably never eliminate gossip completely, but you can tamp it down by informing your employees promptly of promotions, reassignments and other personnel developments so that they don't have a reason to hang around sharing "news" in the form of rumors.
A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.