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While gossip may often be a harmless part of human nature, experts say it can also cross the line.miodrag ignjatovic/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

For those who find themselves fodder for the office rumour mill, the workplace can quickly become the worst place.

While gossip may often be a harmless part of human nature, experts say it can also cross the line.

“Workplace gossip, even in a relatively minor form, can rise to the level of bullying and harassment,” says Jessica Fairbairn, a partner at Vancouver-based Harris & Co., a workplace law and advocacy firm. “It can kind of feel like an overstatement to call it that, but it’s rarely gossip in isolation.”

Ms. Fairbairn says there are options for employees who are the subject of harmful office gossip, which can include legal recourse. Under the Worker’s Compensation Acts in all provinces, bullying and harassment are considered a workplace hazard.

For example, Worksafe BC cites spreading malicious rumours as behaviour that might constitute bullying and harassment. Those rules cover all different types of workplaces, whether private or public sector, unionized or non-unionized, Ms. Fairbairn says.

She notes employees in a unionized workplace can file a grievance. They may also be able to file a complaint before a provincial or federal human rights tribunal if the harassment is based on one of the protected grounds under the Human Rights Code. Tribunal decisions have made it clear that a single remark in isolation doesn’t constitute discrimination but repeated, pervasive gossip can, Ms. Fairbairn explains.

She adds that employees in a non-union organization could make a legal claim that a failure to address it amounts to constructive dismissal.

Ultimately, employers may not have control over what comes out of employees’ mouths. Still, they can control the tone and culture tolerated in the workplace and how supervisors are trained to intervene. And there are disciplinary steps they can take.

“An employer who becomes aware of gossip that’s happening amongst co-workers and takes no steps to try to stop that, to prevent it, to investigate it, is going to see a lot more legal exposure than the ones that do,” Ms. Fairbairn says. “They can’t ignore it.”

Gossip can have some value. Sometimes it is a way of providing feedback – not the most constructive way, but a common one, says Alan Kearns, managing partner of CareerJoy, a career coaching firm.

He says that employees who find themselves the subject of office gossip shouldn’t ignore it, but they should be careful and thoughtful about how they respond.

He suggests taking a step back to try to understand who’s involved in spreading the information and how to best address it. The key is not to overreact.

“The most dangerous thing is to become reactive and potentially go down a path that is not necessarily the right path,” Mr. Kearns says, adding that the wrong reaction could damage your reputation at work, which could wind up worse than any gossip.

“Sometimes people get into this major control mode, and that’s where things can go really awry,” Mr. Kearns says. “They run around and talk to a whole bunch of people … and just make the situation worse.”

Another option for employees who are the subject of office gossip is to address it directly with the person spreading the information, says Kris Tierney, vice-president of human resources and learning at the Human Resources Professionals Association, which regulates the HR profession in Ontario.

“In most workplace situations, dealing with the other individual directly is enough to put an end to it,” she says.

If that’s not possible, or the employee is uncomfortable trying it, she says a manager or the organization’s human resources professionals are there for support.

Ideally, organizations have policies in place to prevent gossip, bullying and harassment, Ms. Tierney says. Policies should include a clear understanding of what is inappropriate and what are the consequences, she notes, and all employees need to be made aware.

“Often, employees are not aware the policy exists, or they don’t understand the policy, or they also don’t understand their rights and responsibilities,” Ms. Tierney says.

Ongoing training and communication are part and parcel of prevention, she adds. When that fails, HR and managers have many tools available, including conflict resolution or discipline.

“You’re definitely not alone,” she says. “One of the roles HR plays in an organization is to ensure a safe, psychologically safe, healthy, inclusive workplace for everyone who works there. If somebody feels they’re not experiencing that fully, then HR is a really valuable, important stop for them to seek some support.”

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