Ask an HR Expert: Stopping Rumors

Can we discipline an employee for spreading rumors about co-workers?

By Barbara Holland August 26, 2019
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​Yes, because spreading rumors or gossiping can damage relationships, lower morale, increase anxiety and reduce productivity. If not addressed swiftly, gossip also can erode staff’s trust in managers and senior leaders. 

Conversations that are intended to hurt others, or elevate oneself, rarely have a good outcome and should be dealt with quickly. Bear in mind, though, that not all negative comments may be gossip. Keeping an open ear to watercooler conversations can also identify legitimate problems, which can be addressed or corrected early on. 

It’s good to remember that not everything is as it may appear. There could be more to the story. It might be necessary to investigate a rumor or complaint to gain a better understanding of the bigger picture. 

After investigating the matter, if an employee is found to have been spreading rumors, the behavior should be addressed as outlined in the company’s disciplinary process according to the code of conduct or related policy. When ignored, conversations that are intended to hurt others can turn into a form of harassment or bullying.

Look for systemic issues and patterns: Does the gossip center on one person? Do managers participate? Do they condone gossip by remaining silent when they hear others talking about their subordinates or colleagues? Does the organization’s code of conduct adequately address gossip and rumors? 

If needed, you may want to create a policy specifically addressing malicious rumors and gossip. The definition of gossip could include overly negative criticisms or conjecture that can harm another person’s credibility or reputation.

Keep in mind, the policy should not be overly broad, or it may be considered unenforceable, especially if it restricts the rights of employees to talk about wages, hours, workplace conditions or any other employment conditions, which are rights that are guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act and that apply to private employers. 

To effectively address rumors, leaders must model behavior that’s supportive of all staff. Creating a workplace built on trust and training staff to resolve conflict could lead to a more engaged workforce. Every employee should understand and commit to the values of the organization, and all employees should be taught how to positively engage with others when problems arise. 

When everyone supports and models a company’s values, staff members have the ability to self-regulate negative behavior and squash rumors before they have a chance to do harm.  

Barbara Holland, SHRM-CP, is an HR Knowledge Advisor for SHRM.

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