Break rooms, water coolers, and parking lots are backdrops for conveying the latest gossip in the workplace. Some employees are more engaged in the personal lives of their coworkers than the productivity of the business. In Laurus Technical Institute, the company instituted a “No Gossip Policy” prohibiting employees from participating or instigating gossip about the company, an employee, or customer. Sound reasonable? Well when Joslyn Henderson was terminated for violating the policy, she sued for violating her rights under the National Labor Relations Act. An administrative judge for the National Labor Relations Board (Board) found in her favor and recommended the company reinstate her employment and compensate her for wages lost.
Does this mean employers must embrace gossip in the workplace? No. It does mean, however, that employers must refrain from prohibiting a broad definition of gossip to avoid restricting protected conduct. For example in Laurus Technical Institute, one of the definitions of gossip was negative, untrue, or disparaging comments of another person or the company. All three adjectives are too broad. Discussing with coworkers disapproval of employee benefits or a manager’s lack of leadership may be considered negative commentary and against the policy. That discussion, however, is protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act because employees are discussing workplace conditions. Even discussing conditions that are proven false may still be protected activity under the Act.
In Laurus Technical Institute, Ms. Henderson violated the no gossip policy when she discussed with coworkers the fear of losing their jobs after the company terminated a few employees. She went on to help them apply for employment with a competitor. While the coworkers later complained to management that she was soliciting them to leave the company, the judge held that because the no gossip policy was unlawful and she was terminated for discussing job security with her coworkers under the policy, a protected activity, terminating her employment for those reasons were unlawful.