Workplace Gossip? Tell it to the judge

by on June 30, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Workplace Gossip Could Result in Defamation Claims

Morale and productivity aren’t the only reasons to clamp down on trash talk in the workplace. Regina Robson, J.D., an expert in employment law at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, says that workplace gossip can be the basis of a defamation action against a coworker or the employer.

‘All I did was forward an e-mail!’
When e-mail is involved, the stakes are even higher, she says. For one thing, defamation is easier to prove with a written record. Also, the law considers sending an e-mail “publishing” – even if it only goes to one other person. So anyone who forwards a defamatory e-mail could be as liable as the person who originally wrote it.

‘Ruth screwed up the project!’
Workplace gossip doesn’t have to be juicy to land you in court. A comment related to job performance could be grist for a lawsuit because it affects an employee’s earning power. For example, one company was sued – and had to settle – when an employee blamed missed deadlines on a worker who’d just resigned.

What if it’s true?
As a general rule, truth is a defense against defamation. But you could still be on the hook. Even if it’s truthful, workplace gossip may constitute invasion of privacy or misuse of confidential information. For example, Robson cites cases where statements impugning someone’s chastity or integrity resulted in liability. Workplace gossip about someone’s sex life could also be fodder for a sexual harassment or hostile-workplace claim.

For example:

  • “Everyone knows she got promoted because she’s having an affair with the boss.”
  • “I saw Bob this weekend holding hands with some guy. I didn’t know he was gay – did you?”

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