Workers’ Compensation, Gossip and You! 9 Tips From a Legal Perspective

While office gossip has existed as long as there have been offices, it has intensified in recent years as workers face more pressure and the threat of downsizing. It breeds when intense competition and professional envy are entwined. Gossip can harm careers, deflate morale and expose employers to legal liability.

The First Amendment doesn’t grant complete freedom of speech at work or in business. Therefore, harmful gossip can sometimes be considered defamation under the law, especially if it impacts your career. Gossip is a growing risk management issue because the company gets dragged in when an employee, slandered by a co-worker, sues the employer for “negligent supervision.” Besides causing legal problems, malicious gossip can destroy teamwork and ruin careers.

Risk managers and human-resource professionals must work as a team to put gossip prevention guidelines into effect. In today’s litigious environment, every risk manager must take steps to reduce the risks of employee gossip.

9 Tips from a Legal Perspective: For Employers & Employees

1.      Get the facts if you hear negative remarks about yourself, a subordinate or colleague. When someone says “John Doe isn’t a teams player.,” ask the person who says it to provide specific examples. Ask questions like: “Where did you hear this?” Keep notes, which will be valuable if you need to bring the matter to the human resources director. Let the HR director handle the issue, don’t try to handle it yourself.

2.      Be skeptical when a departing employee criticizes a boss or colleague as “unprofessional” or “hard to work with” it may just be sour grapes.

3.      Don’t repeat gossip you hear. Someone spreading slander is as liable as the person who started it.

4.      Set the tone at the top. Set a clear corporate policy on office gossip. One barring the spread of rumors about other employees.

5.      Put the policy in writing and regularly communicate it to employees. Create a corporate culture where gossip and rumor are unacceptable. For instance, one employer’s handbook states: “Employees will not knowingly or unintentionally make false statements about the company or any company employee during the period of time an employee is receiving payments from the employer.”

6.      Explain the policy. Discuss how gossip undermines morale, harm careers and may even result in lawsuits. Point out communication may halt and productivity decline because of gossip.

7.      Appeal to employees’ self-interest and sense of fairness. Discourage gossip, but don’t sound like you are trying to prevent normal conversations.

8.      Supervisor responsibility. Let supervisors know they’re responsible for controlling and correcting harmful gossip.

9. Don’t allow managers to ask leading questions. When reviewing their  subordinates for performance issues, managers should not say things that subtly suggest a supervisor or employee might being doing an inadequate job.

Robert Elliott, senior vice president, Amaxx Risks Solutions, Inc. has worked successfully for 20 years with many industries to reduce Workers’ Compensation costs, including airlines, health care, manufacturing, printing/publishing, pharmaceuticals, retail, hospitality. Contact him at: Robert_Elliott@reduceyourworkerscomp.com or 860-553-6604.

For more information and tools, see WC Cost Reduction Tips. There are several free forms and tools on the site.

Note:  Do not use this information without independent verification. All state laws are different. Consult with your corporate legal counsel before implementing any cost containment programs.

©2008 Amaxx Risk Solutions, Inc., All rights reserved under International Copyright Law

Robert Elliott, J.D.
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