Leigh: Hello and welcome to the Better Business Podcast Essentials Update, brought to you by Employsure. I’m your host, Leigh Johnston, and in this series we take a quick look at a key issue in the world of employment relations. For this episode, I ask the question, can you ban workplace gossip?
Leigh: We all know that a bit of friendly banter and chat amongst colleagues makes for a healthy work environment, but what happens when it starts crossing the line? What are the risks to business owners and what can they do about it? Here to talk to us about this potentially tricky issue is our employment relations expert, Thorunn Arnadottir. Thorunn, welcome back to the show.
Thorunn: Thanks for having me back, Leigh. How are you today?
Leigh: I’m good. I’m good. Let’s jump into the big one. Can an employer ban workplace gossip?
Thorunn: Well, Leigh, before we think about banning workplace gossip, we need to understand what it is. When we think of workplace gossip, we picture private conversations between familiar colleagues about another person in the workplace, and usually, this involves a negative exchange of rumors or sensitive information about that person that they wouldn’t want discussed.
Thorunn: However, gossip isn’t always negative. It can be viewed as a way in which employees learn about the dynamics within a workplace, establish connections with others, and share knowledge. It could be speculative gossip about workplace events, changes and plans, and how their colleagues and managers are involved. Or it could involve the exchange of stories about another person’s personal or professional successes. You know, who’s going to get that next top position and why.
Thorunn: Workplace gossip can also be subjective opinion. For instance, an employer may view discussions amongst staff about a supervisor as negative gossip, whereas employees might have genuine concern about the way in which they’re been treated by that manager. It can be difficult to really pinpoint what gossip is and what gossip is not, especially as it’s a large part of workplace relationships and it isn’t always clear cut in a conversation. So banning gossip outright is unlikely achievable.
Leigh: Okay, so, let’s unpack that a little bit more. Obviously, there can be some positive aspects to banning gossip. Let’s say it ,kind of skews towards the negative end and it can be quite destructive. How would someone go about banning gossip? Do they need a policy, or is it just a conversation they need to have with staff, or a bit of both?
Thorunn: So, often the desire to ban workplace gossip is a reaction to an incident amongst staff or management that’s caused tension in the workplace. In such circumstances, it might be necessary to have a conversation about the matter with the parties concerned, and maybe even their witnesses. Run a bit of an investigation before reaching a conclusion on the matter and banning gossip because of it.
Thorunn: In some circumstances, it may be necessary to have a conversation about the matter with the parties concerned, and maybe their witnesses, too. Run a bit of an investigation before reaching a conclusion on the matter and banning gossip outright. A conclusion on the matter and who is at fault cannot always be confirmed, and so the overall culture values and everyday practices may also need to be reviewed.
Thorunn: To be proactive, however, an employer should get policies in place that set out the expected standards of behavior and the potential consequences of breaching those policies.
Leigh: Okay, so we don’t want employers to become the fun police. Obviously, a little bit of workplace banter and a little bit of gossip is normal and natural and part of every workplace, but what’s the line between friendly office banter and destructive gossip?
Thorunn: Look, sometimes employees have to play the fun police, but really, it’s about setting clear boundaries from the start of an employee’s employment. Of course, you want your employees to get along and not be scared of having a good chat, but it’s on the company to not let the standards of those conversations slip.
Thorunn: If employers can hold employees accountable to their behavior and adopt a consistent approach in addressing negative workplace gossip with all staff that choose to engage in it, they will have less policing to do, because employees will start to self regulate. When you start turning a blind eye, though, to negative gossip, it can quickly spiral out of control and be quite difficult to recover from.
Leigh: Can workplace gossip ever be considered a form of bullying?
Thorunn: Negative workplace gossip can certainly be considered bullying. Bullying is repeated unreasonable behavior by a person or group of people that victimizes, intimidates, humiliates, or threatens another person. So gossip can definitely fit this description. It can also be viewed as harassment, which is unwelcome behavior that targets another person because of a protected characteristic, for example, their gender, sexual preferences, or cultural background.
Thorunn: This behavior and these types of conversations can cause a risk to an employee’s health and safety and can result in costly legal issues for an employer if it’s ignored. Before gossip leads to a complaint of bullying or harassment, employees should be aware of what behaviors constitute bullying and harassment and the expected standards of behavior. This can be achieved through company policies and training and ensuring that everyday practices reinforce a positive workplace culture.
Leigh: So we’ve talked a little bit about the negative aspects of workplace gossip. You mentioned in your opening that there can be some positives, as well. Is there ever a time when it’s okay or permissible for there to be a bit of gossip in the workplace?
Thorunn: Yeah. So, as I sort of mentioned before, workplace gossip doesn’t always have to be negative. It can be just general chit chat, an exchange of information and a way of making sense of the environment around a person. It could be a way for an employee to confirm whether their perception, whether it’s negative to start with, if it is a perception about a particular person, whether it’s invalid, and whether there is another way that they could be viewing that particular person.
Thorunn: They could be seeking information that brings clarity to their situation and their view on their workplace environment. It can also be a way for employees to come together and make sense of their workplace rights. Sometimes it gives them an opportunity to come together and, if necessary, raise a dispute around a particular concern.
Leigh: Can gossip ever be a way to build a professional network or relationships within an organization?
Thorunn: Yeah, absolutely, and people do use it to their advantage. It can be used to establish strong connections with certain people. They can use it to network and get themselves in certain positions in a place, or get recognition. It can definitely be a way of forming networks.
Leigh: What are the obligations employers need to be aware of when it comes to gossip in the workplace? Surely they can’t control what their employees say.
Thorunn: That’s right, Leigh. You can’t always control what your employees say, but employers do have an obligation to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of their employees, and so employers can set out to lead by example and ensure that their managers and supervisors are held accountable for doing the same thing.
Thorunn: Employees should also keep their ear to the ground and make sure that any negative workplace gossip is addressed without delay. Clear processes for employees to raise their concerns in confidence should also be in place, and any concerns should be taken seriously and addressed promptly.
Leigh: Are there any case studies or examples of businesses who have banned or managed workplace gossip? What was their story?
Thorunn: So, one that comes to mind is a case of a childcare center that had an all-encompassing no backbiting policy. In this case, the Fair Work Commission supported an employee who raised an unfair dismissal claim for being terminated on the basis of calling a staff member lazy and another one incompetent.
Thorunn: The employee had raised her concerns with management, which she found to be true, and the employer basically dismissed her for engaging in gossip and breaching this policy. The issue was that the wording of the policy basically meant that the employee had to be dismissed instantly for gossip and the court found that this policy was too blunt, and that the termination was harsh. So this is a lesson that we really need to pay attention to the way in which we draft a policy.
Leigh: So even in cases where you do want to manage what your employees say or try and control gossip, you still need to be careful about how you might apply the relevant policy.
Thorunn: Most definitely, and I would strongly recommend that any business, when they are drafting their policies, they get a professional eye to look over those policies and make sure that the wording is correct, and that it’s not going to get them in trouble later down the line.
Leigh: Thorunn, thanks for joining the show again and talking us through this potentially delicate issue.
Thorunn: And thanks for having me back, Leigh. Hopefully I can come back next time.
Leigh: We would love to have you back, Thorunn.
Leigh: Well, that’s it for this month’s Essentials Update. A huge thanks, again, to Thorunn for joining the show and helping us understand the murky world of workplace gossip. Before I go, don’t forget that if you need help with your obligations as an employer, or just want some support on any aspect of workplace relations, give Employsure a call on 1-300-651-415 to find out how we can help you.
Leigh: Or you can visit our website, employsure.com.au, where we have a stack of free resources for business owners. That’s it for this month’s Essentials Update. Thanks again for listening. I’m your host, Leigh Johnston, and tune in again next time when we tackle another key issue in the world of employment relations.