When workplace gossip bites back

Ah, gossip! We all love hearing it and engaging in it. Most often, however, we’d probably prefer not to feature in it.

Socially, it can be a powerful thing; politically, it can be dynamite. According to Niki Savva’s current bestseller on the downfall of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, it threatened to bring down a government.

Gossip in the workplace is commonplace – but how many of us have seen it become truly destructive? And how have apparent perpetrators, victims and their employers fared when workplace gossip has found itself at the centre of cases before the Fair Work Commission (FWC)?

Take as an example a 2011 case of unfair dismissal against an employer that had taken the trouble to introduce a strict “no back-biting policy” – helpfully, the FWC sought the Macquarie Dictionary’s definition of ‘back biting’: 1. To attack the character or reputation of, secretly; 2. To speak evil of the absent, gossip.

The employer, a childcare centre, subsequently referred to the policy in dismissing an employee who had derided one fellow staff member as lazy and another as incompetent – comments she suggested were not ‘back biting’ as they were true. She had also raised one of her complaints directly with the centre’s Director.

In this case, the FWC found in favour of the employee and awarded compensation of just under $10,000. In doing so, it characterised the no back-biting policy as “an extremely blunt instrument”, because any breach could mean instant dismissal. Instead, the Commission suggested that “the nature and intent and effect of the ‘back biting’ need to be considered”.

In this context, the result of another 2011 case of unfair dismissal is instructive. An employee was sacked for spreading rumours to a colleague about her Managing Director’s supposed womanising and illicit drug use. The colleague happened to be the Managing Director’s fiancé. After failing to attend a meeting organised to discuss her behaviour, the employee was dismissed.

Finding in favour of the employer, the FWC indicated that “salacious and unproven rumours… and hostility on the part of (the employee) towards her employer… are consistent with a malicious intent” – and constitute “a valid reason for termination of employment”.

More recent cases have predictably involved social media and other avenues of ‘cyber gossip’. In a case heard earlier this month, an employee was sacked immediately without notice when her employer discovered she had been discussing her impending redundancy with her sister (the ex-owner of the business) on Facebook.

The employer contended that the employee had breached a “request for confidentiality” and made “derogatory” remarks about the business – a claim the FWC considered unfounded.

In handing down his decision, which awarded more than $4,000 in compensation to the employee, Commissioner Roe said: “We do not live in a society where employees are prohibited from discussing their employment status or their treatment at work with others.”

In another case heard in January, however, Commissioner Roe was faced with decidedly different circumstances. In an email seeking work with a competitor of his current employer, an employee had suggested that his manager had left his wife and children, was having a relationship with another employee, and that the company had lost a major account.

Made aware of the email, the boss confronted the employee who denied he had sent it – but the recipient of the email had already confirmed its content and the fact that the employee had called him to discuss it further. Immediate termination of employment had followed.

According to Commissioner Roe, the email sent to the competitor gave the employer “reasonable grounds for perceiving this to be slanderous and damaging to his business”. And further:

“This is not a case where passing comments of a critical nature are made about an employer to friends or family in private at a party or on private email or on a private Facebook page. This is a case where work email is used to communicate with another employer in the same industry.”

It was no defence, the Commissioner said, to suggest that any such information about the employer’s private life “might have been common knowledge”.

It is clear from these examples that there is a big difference between ‘venting’ and ‘gossip’ in the workplace – and intent, malicious or otherwise, plays a significant role.

The crossover of gossip with bullying is also important in a work setting. In a case heard last October, a woman running a market stall was subjected to the ridicule of other stall holders who had shared false stories about her.

While stopping short of granting an order to stop bullying for lack of evidence, Commissioner Cloghan made a point of saying: “Bullying can manifest itself in many ways. I consider it uncontroversial to say that spreading misinformation or ill-will against others (is) bullying.

“This also goes for criticism/gossip with other stall holders… Scurrilous denigration of a worker in the workplace would certainly fall within the boundary of bullying.”

So while you might want to think carefully before designing your own “no back-biting” rule, it would seem to be a smart move to include the issue of gossip – whether in person or online – in the bullying and harassment policies and training programs implemented in your workplace.

Have you introduced policies in your workplace specifically concerned with gossip? Share your thoughts and experiences below.

Should you require any advice on this subject, please contact Emma Howden, Ai Group’s National Manager – Workplace Training and Events.

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Graham Turner
Graham Turner is the former Editor of Ai Group's Industry magazine, which ceased publication in 2014. He now edits (and moderates) this Blog, together with Ai Group's weekly Email newsletter.

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