The Gossip Train is the University of Colorado Ombuds’ series of blog posts and lunch and learns on all things gossip. We will explore the origins of gossip, why we gossip, the joys and dangers of gossip, and what you can do when gossip is not helpful!

As we wrap up The Gossip Train series, some of you might be wondering, is it time for a no-gossip policy? That is a fair question. Throughout this series, we have explored the paradox of gossip. That is, gossip is both hazardous and dangerous with the potential to harm and also potentially useful and valuable knowledge that can provide warning signs and reveal underlying organizational problems and issues. So why not simply develop and implement policies to reduce and eliminate damaging, negative gossip and hold violators accountable?

While such policies might model good ethical practice, one reason we might not see more of them is that writing no-gossip policies is tricky business. Take the Laurus Technical Institute’s attempt to implement a no-gossip policy. The school had a restrictive no-gossip policy that banned talking about someone’s personal or professional life when the person or his or her manager wasn’t present. It also prohibited “making negative or disparaging comments or criticisms about anyone; creating, and sharing or repeating, a rumor about another person; and discussing work issues or terms and conditions of employment with other employees.” Pursuant to the policy, the institute fired an employee because she discussed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint she had filed alleging sexual harassment and retaliation by her manager.

A partner in the labor and employment group at Ohio-based Kohrman Jackson & Krantz PLL, said the institute’s policy violated Section 7 of the act, which addresses “protected concerted activity” of employees. In layman’s language this means the law protects workers’ right to talk about wages, hours, and other employment conditions. 

In a December 2013 ruling, a National Labor Relations Board Administrative Law Judge struck the policy down for being “overly broad”. The judge opined the policy violated the National Labor Relations Act, concluding someone could interpret the policy to prohibit talking about individual wages, how a supervisor is requiring employees to work too many hours, or about what’s going on with our jobs at work.

This doesn’t mean an organization cannot have a policy. In fact, many companies include formal policies restricting gossip in their employee handbooks. Rather, employers need to ensure they aren’t overly broad. They can’t use no-gossip policies to forbid normal griping about supervisors, which the Laurus Technical Institute appeared to try to do. 

Three Tips

  1. The policy should explicitly state that it’s not meant to limit employees’ right to talk about wages, hours or working conditions; rather, it is aimed at gossip about non-work-related issues.
  2. Decide where the line is between innocuous banter among colleagues and conversations that could lead to legitimate concerns about health, safety, harassment, or discrimination based on a protected class.
  3. Individuals in leadership and managerial positions need to brace themselves for criticism. There’s bound to be some amount of resentment toward the boss. Comments that the boss is hard-nosed may be overlooked. Conversely, malicious untrue comments that the boss drinks every day at lunch need to be addressed.

Currently the closest thing that exists at the University of Colorado is its Workplace Bullying Policy, which prohibits all forms of abusive workplace behavior, including conduct that is threatening, humiliating or intimidating, work sabotage and any related retaliation.

Instead of writing policies prohibiting gossip, organizations might choose to focus on education. Warn employees about the dangers of talking about co-workers behind their backs and develop broader initiatives addressing abrasive or unprofessional conduct. Perhaps bring in coaches or other professionals who specialize in team dynamics. Maybe your ombuds can help! They can get to the root of the gossip and identify what is driving the behavior. Then you can strategize options to address it effectively.

By: Elizabeth “Liz” Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Ombuds Office