Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Workplace Gossip

I recently had a piece in the Canberra Times, 'Gossip adds to woes in office'. (Click on the image to zoom.)

A Melbourne child care worker was sacked for 'backbiting', and was then awarded compensation for her dismissal: the company's rules were vague, said the Fair Work Australia commissioner.

I've tried to get to the heart of 'backbiting' and gossip: not just legal clarity, but moral character.  A sample:
‘The best ammunition against lies is the truth,’ novelist Ernest Hemingway once quipped, ‘but there is no ammunition against gossip.’ Particularly when the gossip is true.

A worker in a Melbourne child-care centre was recently compensated for unfair dismissal, after she was sacked under the company’s ‘no backbiting’ policy. Tara Davies described one Hippity Hop Childcare colleague as ‘lazy’ and another as ‘not..competent,’ and was duly fired for her criticisms.

According to Fair Work Australia commissioner John Ryan, the guidelines were clumsy. Hippity Hop’s policy did not adequately discriminate between ‘malicious and untrue comments and comments made behind a person's back that were true and would not damage their reputation.’ Speaking ill but honestly of someone, in this light, is not the problem – the problem is malevolence, and damage to someone’s standing.
This would be a trivial legal matter if it weren’t for the overwhelming popularity of gossip. It fills pages of vapid magazines. It gives the lips of television’s talking heads something to flap about. It allows strangers to talk as if they had friends in common – friends like Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and Rihanna. More importantly, it is the perennial topic of so many conversations with co-workers: so-and-so is a fake; whatshisname is a parasite; she-who-cannot-be-named is a liar with poor dental hygiene. 
Gossip is a powerful social force, which can knot or cut the ties that bind. It can bring colleagues together, as they share frustrations or trivial stories. And it can ostracise the backbiter or the victim – the first painted as a backstabber, the second as slothful, untrustworthy or cruel. This is why policies exist to stop nasty gossip: it can destroy trust as quickly as it builds it.

However, the basic distinction with gossip is not legal, but moral. In most cases, what matters most is not the demonstrable truth of the claims, but the spirit in which they are spoken and taken.
(Photo: Ghirlandajo)

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