Careless Whispers: Confidentiality and Office Gossip
It’s human nature, really. We all love glimpses into the private lives of others, which is why the Kardashians are a household name. And our appetite for gossip can naturally extend to the workplace as well. We spend a lot of our lives in the company of our workmates after all, which naturally can make us very curious about their lives. But sometimes office gossip can be hurtful, and damaging not only to the person involved but to the company as well, especially if there has been a breach of confidentiality.
What is workplace gossip?
Workplace gossip is informal chatter about work colleagues and/or their acquaintances. For example, two employees discussing a rumour that the husband of another employee is having an extramarital affair.There are two big concerns with workplace gossip. The first is that an organisation’s workers typically spend much time in each other’s company. If an employee is the victim of gossip, they may no longer feel comfortable in the workplace, and various consequences may flow, including:
- Loss of productivity.
- Increased sick leave.
- An allegation of workplace bullying.
- Management time spent counselling employees.
- Management time spent investigating incidents.
- Low morale amongst staff.
- An increase in inappropriate employee behaviours, especially in respect of office gossip.
- The employee may resign.
- Legal claim for termination of employment.
Almost all these consequences will likely result in some sort of financial loss to the organisation.
The other big issue with workplace gossip is that it can compromise confidentiality – and confidentiality between workers, particularly about their employment conditions, is key to how effectively an organisation functions. For example:
- Workers discussing how much another worker is getting paid can lead to disquiet amongst workers who think they should be paid as much, or more, than their colleague.
- Workers discussing a rumour that there will be forced redundancies when no redundancies are planned, or when the announcement is not ready to be made, can be enormously damaging.
- Workers discussing the possibility that another worker’s employment will be terminated is inappropriate for similar reasons.
- If a worker acts as a support person for another worker involved in a disciplinary matter, any discussion of the matter with other employees may compromise the investigation.
When employees start speculating about operational matters, an atmosphere of mistrust is generated and the employer will be forced to spend time trying to make things right, rather than getting on with running the organisation.
Office gossip and termination of employment
An office gossip can have their employment terminated for various reasons, including breach of confidentiality, bullying, lying, or deliberately causing trouble. For example, in the case of Reedy v Global Cranes Pty Ltd, Fair Work Australia (FWA) found that there was a valid reason for terminating Mrs Reedy’s employment. Mrs Reedy had told a co-worker, Ms Tarrant, that their boss took illicit drugs and that he had been photographed with another woman. The co-worker was the fiancée of the boss and reported the gossip to him. Mrs Reedy’s employment was subsequently terminated and she made a claim for unfair dismissal against the company. FWA held that: “Mrs Reedy deliberately told Ms Tarrant about a rumour in a manner which was designed to cause trouble in the workplace, in particular between Ms Tarrant and Mr Vidaic, who was her fiancée and the Managing Director of Global Cranes. It is clear what a reference to another woman was in the context of the conversation. It was not an innocent reference.”
How to curb office gossip
Workplace gossip may start out innocently but when it escalates, the consequences can be serious. Wherever possible, employers need to keep a close ear to the ground to monitor what’s being discussed.There should be a clear policy about what is unacceptable employee conduct, including gossiping or spreading untrue or unconfirmed stories about a colleague. In addition, employees should receive training about the importance of confidentiality in the workplace, the harm that can result from gossiping, and how gossiping can morph into more serious issues such as bullying and harassment. Employers should strive to keep an open door to employees who feel that they have been victims of gossip. It is important that any complaints are treated seriously and investigated as thoroughly as other workplace incidents. The more that employees feel that complaints are taken seriously, the more likely that they will speak up before matters get out of hand. Workplace gossiping is an issue that if left unchecked, can have serious consequences for the employee concerned and the organisation’s bottom line.