Office gossip has probably been a workplace scourge since the building of the pyramids. While most managers would love to wave a wand and have the rumor mill disappear, some take steps to try to actually stop employees from talking about one another. According to a recent decision from a federal Administrate Law Judge, a blanket ban on office gossip runs afoul of the National Labor Relations Act.
Laurus Technical Inst. involved a written company policy that prohibited gossip about the company, employees and customers. Gossip was defined as talking about someone when they are not present, or making untrue or disparaging remarks about another person. The policy was adopted two days after the plaintiff had been warned by management about complaining about work issues to co-workers outside of her chain of command. She was subsequently fired for violations of the policy.
The federal ALJ quickly determined that the no gossiping policy was overbroad, and violated employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity under the NLRA. The expansive ban essentially prohibited any discussion about anyone or anything relating to the workplace. Employees could not complain about work-related conditions or share information or take concerted activity to have such problems addressed.
This decision does not mean that employers are powerless to respond to situations involving malicious gossip in the workplace. In addition to their legal problems, no gossiping policies are difficult if not impossible to reasonably enforce. However, employers can deal with office gossips on a case-by-case basis. When the rumormongering does not relate to terms and conditions of employment, employers can consider such activity to be grounds for disciplinary action. Employees should be counseled, warned and eventually terminated if they are unwilling to adhere to common standards of civil behavior with respect to their treatment of co-workers. While complaining about work may be protected activity, malicious gossip unrelated to working conditions is not protected speech under the NLRA.