Not only can No-Gossip Policies increase drama among employees, they just might be illegal.
Dealing with gossip in the work place can be very frustrating, not just for business owners, but for everyone involved. Drops in morale and ever-rising employee turnover can make us believe that the only good solution is creating a no-gossip policy. But before you put pen to paper, there are a few things you need to consider.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is the law that governs collective bargaining and employee activity in many workplaces, including those without unions. Section 7 of the NLRA states in part that: “employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”
At first blush, Section 7 doesn’t seem as though there would be much conflict with a no-gossip policy. But consider the following two examples in which the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found unlawful provisions/policies.
NLRB versus Hills & Dales General Hospital – February 2012
In April 2014, the NLRB challenged three statements in the Hills & Dales General Hospital Values and Standards of Behavior Policy and determined them to be unlawful.
1. Employees will not make “negative comments about our fellow team members,” including coworkers and managers;
2. Employees will “represent [the Respondent] in the community in a positive and professional manner in every opportunity;” and
3. Employees “will not engage in or listen to negativity or gossip.”
The problem as challenged by the NLRB: Employees would reasonably view the language to mean they can’t participate in any public activity or make any public statements (i.e., “in the community”) that are not perceived as “positive” towards the Respondent on work related matters, a clear violation of Section 7.
The judge ruled that the first two items do violate Section 8(a)(1) of the Act and are unlawful. In particular, the rules regarding negativity and making negative comments could reasonably restrict employee rights outlined in NLRB Section 7 activity. With respect to the third item, the judge found no violation. The NLRB did not agree with the judge, finding the third item too broad in its use of the term “positive and professional,” particularly when considered in context with the other items.
NLRB versus Laurus Technical Institute – December 2013
In May 2013, the NLRB charged Laurus Technical Institute with unlawful discipline and discharge (firing) of an employee and ordered the school to pay the former employee full compensation of earnings and benefits for all time lost.
A technical college in Georgia, Laurus Technical Institute had a “No Gossip Policy” defining gossip and applicable to all employees of the college. The school adhered to the policy very strictly under a no-tolerance mandate, citing “disciplinary action” as the chief consequence. The definition of gossip is the key language that motivated the challenge:
- “[T]alking about a person’s personal life when they are not present.”
- “[T]alking about a person’s professional life without his/her supervisor present.”
- “[C]reating, sharing, or repeating a rumor about another person.”
The school claimed that an Admissions Representative violated the policy by discussing with co-workers three other employees who were fired and for contacting a former colleague who worked at another school to see if there were jobs available there.
A judge ruled that firing the Admissions Representative was unlawful because “[t]he language in the No Gossip policy is overly broad, ambiguous, and severely restricts employees from discussing or complaining about any terms and conditions of employment. … A thorough reading of this vague, overly broad policy reveals that it narrowly prohibits virtually all communications about anyone, including the company or its managers. In fact, read literally, this rule would preclude both negative and positive comments about a person’s personal or professional life unless that person and/or his/her supervisor are present.”
The NLRB enforced all decisions by the judge, at considerable expense to the Laurus Technical Institute. In addition to enforcing the finding that the “No Gossip” rule was unlawful, the NLRB also enforced the judge’s decision that Laurus violated federal labor law by firing the Admissions Representative. The judge found that it was unlawful to terminate the employee for engaging in the protected concerted activity of discussing with other employees various work-related concerns such as paid time off requests.
Cleaning Up Your Company Policies
Clearly, it isn’t as cut and dried or easy as it may initially seem to create a no-gossip policy. I recommend you start by pulling out your employee manuals and handbooks. Look for some of the most commonly referred to unlawful statements and delete them immediately.
- Any statement referring to not discussing wages, pay, bonuses etc.
- Any statement referring to negative comments or negativity
- Any statement that is overly broad or all encompassing with regards to employee behavior
- Any statement that denies employees the right to complain about the company
- Any statement that restricts employees from discussing termination of other employees
After all is said and done, you may want to think about how effective a no-gossip policy will even be considering typical human behavior. As you have likely learned already, those who are inclined to gossip will not be put off by a policy. While it’s true that gossip can undermine morale and create a hostile work environment in many ways, so can policies and rules that are perceived as overly restrictive or outright unfair.
Considering the overall potential effectiveness of a no-gossip policy combined with the difficulties of enforcing and defending it, my recommendation would be to focus instead on the culture of your company. Creating a culture where people don’t want to gossip is ultimately going to be much more effective at getting you the results you are striving for.
If you do decide to move ahead with the creation of a no-gossip policy for your company, make sure to hire an employment attorney who will have the most current information available and will be most able to accurately lead you toward a sound policy.
Liz Trotter is founder of American Maid Cleaning as well as an entrepreneur and leadership trainer based in Olympia, Washington. She is also a former ARCSI baord member, a partner in Cleaning Business Builders, creator of the HiPEP employee development system and a charter member of Cleaning For A Reason.