Rumors in the workplace are a constant issue. When rumors and gossip about an employee are spread, they can harm the victim’s reputation and potentially lead to an unfair job loss. Salacious rumors and gossip in the workplace can quickly spread and have unforeseen consequences both for the victim and the employer. When employers take adverse job actions against employees based on gossip or rumors, they could be exposed to potential liability. People who have suffered adverse job actions based on untrue rumors or gossip might want to talk to the attorneys at Swartz Swidler for advice about their options.
Case illustrates the potential outcomes of office gossip
In Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., No. 18-1206 (4th Cir. Feb. 8, 2019), a female employee was promoted several times over a short period. A rumor spread throughout her workplace that she was engaged in a sexual relationship with a male manager, insinuating that was the only reason why she had been promoted to a managerial position. The highest-ranking manager in the workplace also spread the rumor about her. He subsequently confronted the manager with whom she was alleged to have engaged in a sexual relationship. The rumor continued to spread, and the woman was excluded from participating in a staff meeting in which the attendees discussed the gossip about her.
The woman filed a complaint with her company’s human resources department. The department then emailed the supervisors and the woman, telling all of them to stop discussing the rumor. Human resources subsequently held a meeting with the woman, her supervisor, and the highest-ranking manager. However, the woman was still excluded from meetings, and her supervisor stopped responding to her emails. She then received two warnings before being fired.
The woman filed a hostile work environment and wrongful termination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her employer argued that the rumor was not based on the woman’s sex and that she could not state a claim since it was instead based on her alleged conduct. The trial court agreed and dismissed her complaint.
When the woman filed an appeal, the Court of Appeals ruled that a jury could find that spreading a rumor that the woman had slept her way to the top was prohibited sexual harassment because of the insinuation that she had used sex to further her career. The court found that the rumor was based on a double standard in which men and women who are believed to have office affairs are treated differently than each other. For example, while the woman was excluded from meetings and was ultimately fired, the male manager with whom she allegedly had an affair was not excluded or fired.
The court also found that both the rumor and the events that followed were severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile workplace environment. It reversed the trial court’s decision and sent the case back for further proceedings. The employer subsequently filed a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the request was denied. This means that office gossip about alleged affairs could potentially constitute illegal sexual harassment.
Defamation claims based on rumors in the workplace
In some cases, workplace gossip and rumors could form the basis of a defamation lawsuit. A defamation claim can be filed if an untrue rumor damaged your reputation within your company and community and caused you harm. If you can show that the statements made about you were malicious and false and that your ability to find a new job was diminished as a result, you could have grounds to file a defamation claim against your former employer.
To prevail in a defamation claim against your former employer, you will have the burden of proof and will need to present evidence to support each of the following elements:
- Your former employer made a false statement about you.
- Your former employer knew that the statement was false or made the statement in reckless disregard of whether or not it was false.
- Your former employer made the statement to one or more other people.
- You were harmed by the statement being communicated to others.
You will also need to show that the false statements were more than petty gossip. Instead, they must have been false statements of fact.
How employers should handle workplace rumors
Employers should take steps to reduce the potential of harmful workplace rumors and gossip by explicitly prohibiting them within the workplace. They should also train their employees and supervisors about how harmful rumors and gossip can be. When an employer learns about a rumor, it should thoroughly investigate an employee’s complaint and take prompt steps to address it.
What to do if you have been the target of false workplace rumors
If you have been harmed by a false rumor that was spread about you at work based on your membership in a protected group, you should start by filing an internal complaint with your company’s human resources department. If your employer fails to properly investigate your complaint or retaliates against you, you may have grounds to file a discrimination and retaliation charge against your employer. To learn more about your rights and the legal options you might have, contact the attorneys at Swartz Swidler by calling (856) 685-7420.