What is the correct response from HR when office gossip goes too far?
Gossip is a natural – and inevitable occurrence in the workplace. It can even be a force for good, as camaraderie is fostered in teams through day-to-day socialisation. However, gossip is perpetually in danger of turning into its evil twin: the workplace rumour.
“There are at least four big reasons why we engage in a workplace rumour: making sense of the world, working out how it affects us, reassurance and social currency; alliances, knowledge, status,” says director of Hardwired Humans Andrew O’Keefe.
While a hurtful workplace rumour can often be managed by the individual affected, as shown in this guide at Harvard Business Review, the directives are far less hard-and-fast when it comes to murkier matters, such as when rumours lead to bullying, harassment… and even legal action.
So what does the AHRI community have to say on the matter? And is there a ‘best practice’ solution here?
Don’t leap to the nuclear option… but be prepared for it
Julie Garland McLellan, Non-Executive Director and Consultant, recommends that HR professionals study recent legal judgements such as that of Boland and Cush v. Dillon to understand how quickly a workplace rumour can devolve into a legal headache.
“The first thing for an HR professional to do when dealing with an office rumour is to consider the defamation aspect,” she says.
In this case, a workplace rumour turned into a defamation action and is still working its way through the courts, at great cost to all involved.
It began when Ms Meryl Dillon, a board member of the Catchment Management Authorities (CMA), told the then chairperson of the board, Mr James Croft, that it was “common knowledge” that fellow board member, Leslie Boland was having an affair with the general manager of the CMA , Ms Amanda Cush.
Where Mr Croft and Ms Cush accepted that there was a legitimate interest for the chairperson to know whether they were in fact having an affair, they argued that stating that that their alleged affair was “common knowledge” was akin to spreading a workplace rumour – thus proving malice on Ms Dillon’s part.
Rumours can not only be hurtful, says Garland McLellan; they can be damaging. “If there is a legal aspect, HR Directors need to seek legal advice from a professional who specialises in this sort of thing, as it’s a complicated matter.”
“Directors can have a duty to act when rumours damage a company’s reputation (or that of its board and/or executives), and a duty to disclose the existence of a rumour does not absolve a director from their duty not to dis-fame.”
Taking immediate action
Almost all who responded reiterated that an immediate response is crucial.
Though sometimes it can be difficult to perceive when everyday ‘acceptable’ socialisation takes a turn, once the issue has been recognised, it’s in HR’s best interest to respond swiftly.
One example of the dangers of not doing so comes courtesy of Arthur Poropat, Dr of Organisational Psychology at Griffith University.
He cites a case in which rumours were actively spread by a couple of employees about an individual, resulting in a supervisor who was aware of the situation, but failed to intervene. It’s also an apt example of seemingly benign misbehaviour escalating due to non-action.
“The persistence of the rumour-mongering amounted to sexual harassment and bullying and by the time HR was alerted, the victim was experiencing a range of stress-related illnesses,” he writes.
Because the supervisor had condoned the rumour-mongering, he says, the organisation was not in a legal position to discipline the actual perpetrators – but the supervisor was severely disciplined.
“I’ve always kept that case in mind whenever I hear of something like this: rumour-mongering can easily become bullying or harassment. These can be devastating and supervisors are crucial for managing these problems.”
Should HR even be involved?
Some respondents maintained that the situation need not be escalated to HR unless absolutely necessary, as this gives oxygen and exposure to an issue best dealt with privately.
“No disrespect to HR, it’s best if they are not involved at least initially,” writes Denis Threlfall, executive at the Pharos Institute.
Garland McLellan agrees that “ideally, you would want individuals to be sorting it out themselves.”
He suggests the matter should be dealt with as soon as possible – “certainly well before it gets to litigation” – behind closed doors by the appropriate line manager. This is certainly the case if there has been a misunderstanding that can be resolved amicably – such as when something is taken out of context or when there has been some mischief making by others.
This, way, he says, “the ‘perpetrator’ understands the gravity and that it is unacceptable to their line manager.”
Can HR prevent office rumours?
Short answer: no.
The long one is that, as with so many workplace issues, HR does have the ability to define what acceptable – and unacceptable – workplace socialisation looks like, which can contribute to an environment where rumours get nipped in the bud.
“HR can help management define the required culture for their industry,” says Garland McLellan. “They can then establish and reinforce behaviours and structures that will strengthen and maintain that culture.”
“It’s actually very unhealthy to have an office without gossip; it’s the glue that holds your people together!”
What are your thoughts about managing an office rumour?
Read the original discussion thread at the AHRI LinkedIn discussion page here.
Why not take your conversations with HR professionals offline – meet HR peers and learn about HR hot topics at your local AHRI network forum, and earn CPD points in the process.