When Gossip Creates A Hostile Work Environment

Psst. Did you hear? Workplace gossip is no joke, and rumors can easily rise to the level of harassment according to the law. While every office has gossip and rumors, employers can typically stay out of the watercooler and rumor mill talk unless the gossip begins to either perpetuate discriminatory stereotypes or rises to the level of harassment. If the rumors and gossip rise to this level, a worker can claim that they are experiencing a hostile work environment and file a claim or lawsuit against the company.

What is Gossip?

It is important to understand how gossip is defined for legal purposes.   In order for their to be liability, the gossip, whether alone or in combination with other conduct, mustcreate a hostile work environment based on sexual, racial, ethnic origin or disability discrimination or harassment or some other protected class. Anytime anyone talks about someone else behind their back, it is gossip in the traditional sense. However, gossip can also include both true and untrue rumors, talking about professional or personal matters, insulting or harmless comments, or simply any topic that are about another individual in the office.

In some cases, workplace gossip has actually been defined as workplace violence and is considered essentially a verbal attack on another co-worker. Gossip is unavoidable in the workplace, or frankly, in most social situations, however, when gossip rises to the level that damages another employee because of some protected characteristic or in retaliation for whistleblowing, it can be grounds for a claim or lawsuit for a hostile work environment.

How Gossip Damages

Innocent socialization is always acceptable in a workplace environment. However, when comments turn to speculation, or negative remarks regarding a colleague or other worker in reference to their sexuality, gender, age, or race, these remarks can create a hostile work environment quickly.  Sometimes there can be innocent flirting in the office setting, but once conduct or comments are unwelcomed or cross the line to overtly sexual commentary, it provide the basis for costly employment lawsuits against the employer.  Additionally, false assertions of fact that damage the reputation of an employee, for example, falsely accusing them of committing a crime, can constitute defamation for which the employer could be held liable.

Toxic work environments are filled with gossipers who attempt to damage the reputations, both personal and professional, of other co-workers. In some cases, the environment itself is hostile, and in other cases, it may damage the career opportunities of the one being gossiped about. Some of the ways that gossip damages the workplace and creates a hostile work environment include the following:

  • Loss of morale and erosion of trust in management
  • Lost productivity among both those who gossip and the person who is affected by the gossip
  • Divisiveness among employees as they pick sides regarding the rumors or gossip
  • Hurt feelings, stress, anxiety, depression and more among employees, leading to possible sick days and medical or mental health issues
  • Damaged professional and personal reputations causing additional stress and anxiety, as well as the potential loss of career opportunities if management believes the gossip and rumors about an employee
  • Breaks down teamwork and erodes trust among coworkers
  • Productive and good employees leaving due to a hostile and stressful work environment

Employers, Gossip, and Legal Liability

Employees have the right to bring their concerns and grievances to management regarding a hostile work environment without fear of termination or retaliation. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers may be legally liable for their failure to effectively address and resolve rumors and gossip regarding sexual rumors. Other cases have held the opposite, that gossip and rumors do not rise to the level of employer liability. However, given the fact that the legal landscape regarding gossip is ever-changing, it is always best for an employer to err on the side of caution with regards to gossip and rumors in the workplace.

Similarly, where an employee believes the gossip to which he or she is being subjected rises to the level of a hostile work environment, it is prudent to place those complaints in writing, politely and reciting facts, and requesting that the employer take prompt and effective corrective action.   Putting the Complaint in writing can serve a deterrent to retaliation and compelling evidence where retaliation occurs.

Employers may face legal liability under anti-discrimination laws if managers or supervisors have knowledge of harassment and gossip, or have even had complaints filed, and fail to take appropriate disciplinary actions against those gossipers. Employers should take proactive steps to include their policy against gossip in their employee handbook and through training.

If gossip begins to become a problem in the workplace, management should immediately address the issue and explain how gossip related to discriminator or harassing issues are illegal and unacceptable. While it may be impossible to completely stop all office gossip, management should have appropriate resources, training, and education to immediately address any concerns regarding gossip rising to the level of discrimination or harassment in the workplace.

Firing an Employee for Gossiping

If an employee creates a hostile work environment, an employer has the right to ensure that disciplinary action is taken against them, and terminate them if there is no resolution to the gossip and rumors. A hostile work environment is defined as something that is simply unacceptable to employees, employers, and supervisors, and gossip that is discriminatory or harassing in nature certainly rises to this level.

Freedom of Speech

Employers must walk a careful line, however, as employees still have the right to freedom of speech. Employees have a legal right to discuss (or even complain) about their work environment or about people that they work with. If those conversations and discussions are productive and do not infringe on anyone’s civil rights, and do not create a hostile work environment, an employer does not have the legal right to quash simple chatter among employees. It is nearly impossible to stop all gossip in the workplace, however, employers need to set a strong example that any rumors or gossip that seem discriminatory or rise to the level of harassment will receive swift and serious attention to eliminate this type of activity in the workplace.

Contact an Attorney Today

If you were the victim of gossip in the workplace that created a hostile work environment, you have the legal right to bring your complaint to management. You have the right to a workplace free from discrimination and harassment. If you suffered from gossip in the workplace, contact an employment lawyer at V. James DeSimone Law at 310-693-5561 today.

Speaking with one of our attorneys can help you understand your legal rights in the workplace, and help you bring a complaint either with management, or file a claim against your employer. We will help ensure that you receive the compensation you deserve under the law, and that you receive the justice that you deserve.


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