Unless dealt with effectively, office gossip has the potential to significantly disrupt an organisation and negatively impact employee productivity. Nicol Myburgh, Head of the HR Business Unit at CRS Technologies, examines how companies should manage this sensitive topic to ensure a harmonious work environment.
“Companies are increasingly under pressure to deliver more with less budget. Similarly, employees are expected to work hard, be good at their jobs, and remain focused on helping the organisation deliver on its strategic mandate. Office gossip can potentially create a knock-on effect of bad sentiment, resulting in poor morale and people being unable to meet their objectives.”
He cites a recent case in Australia where a woman submitted a formal complaint to her company’s HR department after overhearing three of her male colleagues rank every female worker in a ‘hot list’ based on their looks. Even though their conversation took place on a night out, the complaint eventually resulted in the men’s dismissal.
“While this might sound extreme, anything that can disrupt a company running effectively must be treated with the seriousness it deserves,” says Myburgh.
Fundamentally, it comes down to employees having a right to work in a harmonious environment. Anything that disrupts the harmony can lead to dismissal.
“Of course,” Myburgh notes, “there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to dealing with employees gossiping about their co-workers. Each case must always be treated on its own merits. However, just because an employee is off site, away from the office, and engaging with colleagues after office hours, does not absolve them from complying with the company’s code of conduct. In the above example, the ‘hot list’ under discussion could ultimately have led to sexual harassment, of which the consequences could be dire.”
“The employer-employee relationship is an ongoing one, even more so when colleagues go out together,” Myburgh continues.
Thanks to social media, many employers base their expectations of their employees’ conduct on what is being discussed online.
“The information an employee publishes in the public domain is viewed as a direct representation of the company they work for. There are numerous examples in South Africa of people being dismissed for statements or photos shared on social media. The same applies to office gossip. What employees discuss between themselves can have a massive impact on an organisation’s wellbeing and ultimately lead to its success or failure.”
Unlike sexual harassment, which is a harmful act towards an individual, office gossip is a bit more difficult to classify and is not dealt with in the Employment Equity Act or Labour Relations Act.
“This is where a company policy is essential,” says Myburgh, “and especially when it comes to reporting office gossip. As with any complaints managed by the HR department, these must be treated in the strictest confidence.”
“This is critically important should an employee be fired, or even disciplinary steps taken against them to protect those who reported them in the first place,” he adds.
“A Code of Conduct can define acceptable conduct in the workplace and hold employees accountable for office gossip. It comes down to the wellbeing of the work environment and protecting employees from any form of malicious and disruptive negativity.”