Whether your employees are gathered around the coffee pot or chatting online, you can be fairly certain that gossip is part of the conversation. While speculation about Khloe and Kim and Kanye may be harmless (and baffling), employers often grow concerned when complaints about the company or management dominate the conversation. Some employers even have tried to control the chitchat with “no gossip” policies that prohibit employees from engaging in gossip about the company, an employee, or a customer.
However, a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) demonstrates the potential problems with such a policy. In Laurus Technical Institute v. Henderson, a technical school fired employee Joslyn Henderson for “unsatisfactory performance” that included violating the school’s No Gossip Policy.
The policy defined gossip as one or more of six activities:
- Talking about a person’s personal life when the person is not present
- Talking about a person’s professional life without his/her supervisor present
- Negative, untrue, or disparaging comments or criticisms of another person or persons
- Creating, sharing, or repeating information that can injure a person’s credibility or reputation
- Creating, sharing, or repeating a rumor about another person
- Creating, sharing or repeating a rumor that is overheard or hearsay
The NLRB found that LTI’s policy was so broad and vague that it severely restricted employees from discussing or complaining about terms and conditions of employment, in direct violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In the decision, the judge found that the vague policy essentially prohibited all communications about anyone, including the company and its managers. In finding that the policy violated the law, the judge ruled that Henderson’s termination also was unlawful.
Of note is that LTI is not a unionized workplace — the NLRA applies to all employers, unionized or not. This decision affirms that the NLRB’s reach goes beyond the union settings traditionally associated with the board.
While employers understandably want to curb the rumor mill, policies that limit employees’ discussions of the workplace must be handled with care. Be sure that your policies are narrow in scope, with examples of prohibited conduct, and that they do not interfere with an employee’s right to talk about work-related issues, including wages, benefits, or other terms of employment. Be clear that the policy is not intended to discourage such discussions, and clearly define permissible conduct.
Remember, an open, positive environment goes a long way toward stemming gossip and workplace unrest. The more you trust your employees, the more they will trust you.