An Employer’s Primer on Dealing with Rumors in the Workplace

Posted May 1, 2019 by Moses Balian in Managing Your Team
From speculation about who’s getting a promotion to the latest office romance, rumors in the workplace can damage morale. Get ahead of them by following these helpful tips.

Rumors in the workplace come in all shapes and sizes and, in some cases, can damage employee morale. Often, the rumor mill can be put to rest with a little tact and forethought from leadership.

Below, we dive into a few common workplace rumors that can undermine morale and present a risk to your company’s cultural values, and offer some simple ways that you can get ahead of them.

Dealing with Rumors in the Workplace

Promotions

With respect to promotions, rumors usually surface when someone is chosen for an opportunity over other seemingly more deserving employees. Employees being passed over may think that they exhibit longer tenure, better suited qualifications, or stronger performance. In the wake of an outcome that employees can’t reason through based on the knowledge available to them, rumors may fly.

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When announcing a promotion in person or via written communication, one way to prevent speculation and rumors is to highlight why the individual was chosen for the role. (Never ever issue public criticisms about someone who wasn’t chosen!) It could be that what’s obvious to management with respect to someone’s acumen and readiness might not be apparent to the employee population at-large. Speak to their accomplishments, their successes, and their strengths as an individual contributor or manager. Results speak louder than opinions.

The worst case scenario is when rumors arise that an employment decision was made on the basis of someone’s protected characteristic — such as (but not limited to) race, sex, religion, or age. As an employer, it’s vital that your company prohibits unlawful discrimination and ensures that decisions are not based on a protected characteristic. You should have a written policy against discrimination and harassment — including sexual harassment — that’s communicated and abided by throughout the orgainzation.

In addition, it’s best practice to require all supervisors and non-supervisory employees to take harassment and discrimination prevention training. It’s also recommended that companies take unconscious bias training. If you’re a Justworks customer, you can access free trainings from EVERFI on these topics in our platform. Note that some jurisdictions have policy and/or training requirements relating to harassment.

Transparency around your promotion process and performance reviews will be crucial in preempting such rumors in the workplace.

Should such inflammatory rumors arise, tread carefully. A disgruntled employee who feels they have been unlawfully passed over for a promotion may file an EEOC charge alleging a discriminatory employment decision, and you should always be prepared to respond. Your defense of the charge may include performance records, talent reviews, and regular written feedback that justify the decision based each respective individual’s track record.

Finally, transparency around your promotion process and performance reviews will be crucial in preempting such rumors in the workplace. If you’re a growing business and your performance review process is largely informal, consider upping your game and institutionalizing this practice. As a start, it may be as simple as establishing a regular schedule for reviews (annually, quarterly, etc.) and using a standardized template. This effort will work to your advantage in at least two ways — employees will feel reassured that the business’ decision-making is based on actual performance, and you’ll have generated the documentation by which you may have to defend such a decision to the EEOC.

Compensation

Speculative conversations around inequitable compensation may come in light of a promotional decision, or seemingly out of nowhere. Before you even think about addressing these concerns head-on, consider the legal landscape.

Before responding to compensation rumors, take a strong look at your employees’ compensation.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects employees who engage in “protected concerted activities.” The NLRA gives employees the right to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions. Importantly, this right applies to most union and nonunion employees in the private sector. Employers cannot preclude covered employees from discussing their salaries or wages with colleagues.

Be conscious of equal pay legislation both at the federal level and in your state or locality. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 explicitly “prohibits sex-based wage discrimination between men and women in the same establishment who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility under similar working conditions.” Many states and localities have equal pay laws, some of which include salary history bans.

Before responding to compensation rumors, take a strong look at your employees’ compensation. Could any inequities be reasonably established? It’s best to consult with counsel regarding any allegations of unlawful pay practices or unlawful employment decisions. Once you feel reassured in your decision-making, the earlier you act the better.

Office Politics

Rumors in the workplace will often be imbued with unsavory feelings of a member of leadership’s favoritism toward an individual, or someone’s self-interested ladder-climbing at the expense of their colleagues. These types of rumors are all but inevitable. Not every little piece of gossip warrants intervention, unless it starts propagating a toxicity within the organization and undermining employee morale.

Related Article: Boost Employee Morale: 23 Ways to Make Your Team Love Coming To Work

Such rumors might originate, quite simply, out of a poor working relationship between two colleagues. If the working relationship is so negative that it undermines productivity and effective collaboration, consider informal mediation. An HR professional with experience in employee relations will be a great candidate as a mediator — they have the business’ best interests at heart while still demonstrating employee advocacy.

Romantic Relationships in the Workplace

These types of rumors are a little different in that they involve employees’ off-the-clock personal relationships, and some may even be regarded as trivial. However, juicy gossip about office romance can undermine productivity, be tremendously damaging to employee morale and workplace culture, and create conflicts of interests and other ethics issues. Romantic relationships in the workplace can also expose employers to legal risks.

Publish a policy on romantic relationships that prohibits, limits, or provides guidance about romantic relationships on the job.

Employers should publish a policy on romantic relationships which prohibits, limits, or provides guidance about romantic relationships on the job. Employers can prohibit all romantic relationships, or have a limited ban prohibiting certain relationships, such as relationships between supervisors and subordinates. It's best practice to prohibit romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinates, and between employees and people who could influence their employment terms and conditions. The policy should require disclosure about romantic relationships to HR or another appropriate party within the company.

An effective romantic relationships policy will also remind employees of the company’s sexual harassment policy. No one waives their right to allege sexual harassment when they report a relationship. Rather, the policy should mandate affirmation of each individual’s understanding of the sexual harassment policy, and that the existence of the relationship doesn’t curtail employee rights in any manner.

Once an employer adopts a policy, it’s important that they adhere to it. Inconsistent policies can subject an employer to discrimination litigation.

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Be mindful, receptive, and intentional when it comes to workplace relationships. Don’t blow things out of proportion. People are people, and it’s natural to develop friendships or office romances with individuals we spend the majority of our waking hours around. Foster a culture that doesn’t shame people, but rather sets an expectation of openness and forthrightness when it comes to relationships in the workplace. At the end of the day, the business’ interest in the relationship is a business interest alone, and not a personal one. Productivity and safety are your utmost concern as an employer.

Conclusion

Rumors in the workplace are nothing to panic about. It’s a natural human inclination to speculate in light of a lack of information. But don’t let curiosity lead to skepticism, and in turn lead to resentment amongst your people. It’s important to inspire trust through transparency and openness, ideally under the guidance of a strong HR business partner.

In addition to access to payroll and benefits, Justworks also offers our customers support for their HR needs. Our certified HR consultants are available to provide tailored HR guidance and best practices around managing your people. Learn more about Justworks, and get started today.

This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.