Law office gossip not only kills morale and stifles productivity, but it might also get your firm sued for being a hostile workplace.
In a recent ruling, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said false rumors that a female employee slept with her boss were sufficient to form the basis of a sexual harassment claim in violation of Title VII.
The plaintiff in the case, Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, worked at a warehouse facility in Virginia. She received six promotions in her first 18 months on the job, rising to the position of assistant operations manager.
“Then rumors circulated that [her] precipitous rise through the ranks ‘must’ have been because she was sleeping with her boss,” writes Martha Brown and Seth Laver for Professional Liability Matters. “When [she] complained about the rumors and confronted the employee who allegedly started the rumors, she was terminated.”
In reversing the lower court’s dismissal of the suit, the Fourth Circuit said the harassment was actionable because a workplace manager participated in circulating the rumor and acted on it by disciplining and firing the plaintiff.
According to the court: “As alleged, the rumor was that Parker, a female subordinate, had sex with her male superior to obtain promotion, implying that Parker used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain from a man, so seduced, a promotion. She plausibly invokes a deeply rooted perception – one that unfortunately still persists – that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success. And with this double standard, women, but not men, are susceptible to being labeled as ‘sluts’ or worse, prostitutes selling their bodies for gain.”
Rumors Can Fly in a Law Firm
The fact that Parker arose in a warehouse and not a law firm makes the ruling no less relevant for lawyers. The pressure-cooker confines of the law office – where the stakes are high and the competition fierce – makes it a veritable breeding ground for rampant rumors and toxic talk.
Gossip should be managed like other negative workplace behavior, says one expert:
“Gossip management starts with a serious talk between the employee and the manager or supervisor,” writes HR consultant Susan Heathfield for The Balance Careers. “If discussion of the negative impacts of the employee’s gossip does not affect subsequent behavior, begin the process of progressive discipline, with a verbal warning, then a formal written warning for the employee’s personnel file. Fire an employee who continues gossiping after participating in coaching. One toxic person can drive your good employees out, especially if they see that the behavior is going unaddressed.”
6 Tips For Dealing With Office Gossip
- Put it in your policy manual. Include a provision making harmful gossip and hurtful words a violation of the terms of employment. Make it clear that personal gossip about coworkers is off-limits.
- Nip it in the bud. Keep an ear to the ground. Quash inappropriate talk before it gains momentum. Answer employees’ questions and address their concerns directly and honestly to avoid having them gossip behind your back.
- Try one-on-one coaching. Gossip can be a lifelong habit that’s hard to break. As a first intervention, consider working with the gossiper to make them aware of their detrimental behavior. Suggest ways to improve. Explain the consequences of continued bad behavior.
- Watch for trends. “If you find yourself having to address gossip frequently, you may want to examine your workplace to understand the consistent themes,” says Heathfield. “Consider that you may not be sharing enough information with employees. It is also possible that employees don’t trust you and are afraid to ask about important topics.”
- Know when to act. Heathfield says you should take action if the gossip (1) disrupts the workplace and the business of work, (2) hurts employees’ feelings, (3) damages interpersonal relationships, or (4) injures employee motivation and morale
- Create a healthy firm culture. Your intention should be to establish a workplace that is positive, nurturing and safe for all.