Gossip and Rumors at Work: Not as Harmless as You Might Think

Gossip in the workplace

It may seem harmless at first. A coworker mentions what they heard about another employee sleeping with a supervisor or an executive to get a job, raise or promotion. You share it with someone else — maybe even just one person you trust — as do they, and the rumor spreads until eventually it becomes “common knowledge” in the office that such an event may have taken place.

But did it? And what’s the effect on the employee who’s the subject of the rumors or gossip?

The impact can be significant, even if you never see the extent of it. Female employees have long found themselves the target of sexual and other forms of harassment as a result of the workplace rumor mill. In fact, the environment may become so toxic that she feels she has no choice but to quit. She might be denied a promotion that she earned based on merit, or fired in retaliation for reporting harassment to human resources.

These types of incidents harm reputations, stall or halt careers and have real-world effects. A family’s finances can take a negative turn due to job loss or denial of a better-paying position. Engaging the legal system to clear her name or obtain justice for harm she has suffered can be a lengthy process that is financially and emotionally intensive. Often a woman’s spouse and children are affected by what’s happening to their wife and mother, and their well-being is impacted by hers.

Legal Implications of Workplace Gossip

Courts tend to favor employers over employees when it comes to claims of sexual harassment and discrimination. And often judges don’t find that rumors or gossip in the workplace rise to a level that warrants legal remedy.

A decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year stands out against this bleak historical backdrop, however. After being dismissed by three lower courts, the Fourth Circuit reversed the dismissal of Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc. and found that the defendant (the employer) could be held liable for workplace gossip of a sexually discriminatory nature under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

In its decision, the court stated, “…the central question presented is whether a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain promotion can ever give rise to her employer’s liability under Title VII for discrimination ‘because of sex.’ We conclude that the allegations of the employee’s complaint in this case, where the employer is charged with participating in the circulation of the rumor and acting on it by sanctioning the employee, do implicate such liability.”

With this precedent now on the books, time will tell how it may shape future decisions about workplace rumors, their impact and the employee victim’s ability to find justice in the legal system.

What You Can Do

You may think, I’m one person. What can I do?

Be part of the solution rather than the problem. Don’t take part in gossip. If you are aware of sexually harassing or discriminatory gossip, report it. Let those who are trained to investigate (HR, attorneys, investigators, etc.) do their jobs. If you’re called on to relay what you witnessed or heard, be clear about what is fact, what is rumor and what is opinion to the best of your knowledge.

Keep in mind that there are real people, with real feelings, who suffer real consequences as a result of whispered rumors. And if you find yourself a target of discrimination or sexual harassment as a result of false statements or workplace gossip, consult with an employment law attorney who can offer advice about legal remedies that may be available to you.

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