There have been at least three recent lawsuits filed against fire departments that cite false rumors as a form of illegal workplace harassment. In all three cases, the targets of the rumors were female emergency responders, but in two cases, male firefighters were also plaintiffs, saying that they had been retaliated against for standing up for the target of the rumors.
False rumors and malicious gossip are among the easiest ways to harass or bully someone. All you have to do is identify a person who is in some way vulnerable, make up a tantalizing story about that person, tell a few key people, and then wait for the rumor mill to do its job.
Gossip in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It is normal for people who work and live closely with one another to be interested in the personal lives of their coworkers. Good gossip can involve passing along positive news about a coworker’s family, for example, that a firefighter’s daughter was recently accepted to college, or that another was thinking about adopting a child. Such news-sharing might also include a funny story that a coworker shared about a vacation trip, or speculation on who might be taking the next promotional exam.
Malicious rumors vs. positive gossip
This kind of talk is technically gossip, because it involves talking second-hand about someone who is not present, but it is very different from the type of behavior that is cited in the recently filed lawsuits.
In these complaints, plaintiffs say that they were intimidated at work by false stories about their sexual activity. Male firefighters are sometimes implicated in these stories as well, especially if they appear to be allies to the women targeted.
Malicious rumors can create an atmosphere of distrust that can rot an organization from the inside out. Since it is very difficult to identify who actually started the rumor, everyone is both suspect and unaccountable.
Good leaders know that gossip and rumors can never be eradicated, but they can be managed. What are some of the ways everyone in the organization, from the top down, can do to minimize the negative effects of the rumor mill?
- First, don’t pass it on. If you hear a story about someone that seems suspect, or which is just irrelevant to you personally or your organization’s operations, then simply let that story stop with you. This is the lowest level of response to malicious gossip, but it can be quite effective if enough people do it.
- Second, you can ask for verification. Who told you that? How do you know it to be true? Asking for sources is also a good way to tamp down escalating online frenzy for a topic. This request does not have to be confrontational. For example, if someone is spreading a rumor online about a news event, you can say, “I’m interested in learning more about that. Can you point me to your source on this?”
- Third, you can make a statement. This can be as simple as saying, “I’m not interested in that.” You can go further and say, “I don’t want to hear that. It’s not appropriate.” In my department, there was a senior engineer who everyone respected and many feared. He was a tough guy and set high standards for those who worked with him, but once you won his respect, his loyalty was unwavering. I remember walking into a room when a couple firefighters were sharing negative gossip about a coworker, and this engineer looked them in the eye and said, “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” (His language was actually stronger.) It had the immediate effect of shutting them down.
- Finally, you can hold others accountable for what they say and do. You can do this one-on-one by asking questions like, “If you don’t personally know that to be true, why are you repeating it? Are you willing to be responsible for the harm that kind of statement could cause?” You can also use existing chain-of-command systems to report patterns of malicious gossip and rumors.
Some people think rumors are harmless and that those who object to them are being too sensitive. It is unlikely that those people have ever been the target of a focused gossip and smear campaign. Malicious gossip and rumors can be a form of illegal workplace harassment, and individuals and organizations can be held accountable as such. But more importantly, organizations that tolerate or encourage the rumor mill to flourish undermine the trust, commitment and best efforts of their members. And this is bad for everyone.