Office Gossip Can Get You in Legal Trouble

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Office workers are well aware that gossip is an inevitable reality of the workplace. "She did what?" "He said that to the CEO?" While some gossip is relatively harmless, other forms can be damaging to the target and even result in a criminal complaint.

Almost two-thirds of office workers say that people in their office gossip about company news at some point, according to a survey by Steelcase, an office-services firm. Regina Robson, J.D., an expert in employment law at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, says that employees might want to bite their tongue the next time it comes to gossiping about co-workers. "Employees do have legal rights in mitigating workplace gossip," she says.

When employees use gossip for professional advancement or to damage the reputation of a co-worker, the first question that needs to be asked is: "Is the gossip true?" explains Robson. The second question is: "Is it fact or opinion?" "Factual inaccuracies which result in injury to employees can be the basis of a defamation action against a co-worker or the employer itself," she says.

You may want to re-think clicking "send" the next time you write an e-mail about that co-worker who pushes your button. With a shift in recent years from water cooler gab sessions to online chats, Robson says that employees should especially censor themselves when communicating online. "A defamation action can be brought against anyone who publishes the falsehood, either verbally, in writing or on the Internet."

Employees also have rights, even if the gossip about them is true. This is particularly the case if the statements made constitute an invasion of privacy or misuse of confidential information. Robson cites cases where statements impugning someone's chastity or integrity have resulted in findings of liability.

While most office gossip can be dismissed as idle chatter, Robson says, "Individuals should be aware that it can have legal consequences for anyone who initiates or repeats the falsehood."

Robson, an assistant professor of management at Saint Joseph's, can be reached for comment at 610-660-1633, or by contacting the Office of University Communications at 610-660-1222.

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