Author Archives: Vanessa L. Goddard


Celebrate Earth Day (April 22) year-round with these green workplace ideas.  A few of these changes may only be able to be implemented one day a year.  Others might be things you can work up to doing once a month, or even eventually once a week.  There may even be a few suggestions on this list you can start now and make a lifelong practice of your business or workplaces.

Saving Energy

We’ve all seen the energy efficient light bulbs at the store.  If you’re not using them, you should be. states that, if every American replaced one regular bulb with an Energy Star efficient bulb, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 9 billion pounds – the equivalent of emissions from 800,000 cars!  So, this Earth Day, try making the switch to compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs where feasible in the workplace.

Better still, turn stuff off at the end of the day.  Then, unplug it.  This goes for computers, coffee makers, fax machines, copiers, and any other electronics you have around the office.  Not only will this save electricity – it can save big bucks.  You can make this easier by investing in power strips so you can save money and the environment with the flip of a switch.

For workspaces with windows, implement some lights-out time during the sunniest part of the day.  Natural sunlight not only will reduce your power bill and save electricity, opening those blinds and soaking in the Sun’s Vitamin D will raise your employees’ spirits.

Experiment with changing the thermostat by one degree (up or down depending upon the season) to conserve energy.

Saving The Environment

For this Earth Day, have your employees work together to use less energy for their commute to work.  For those who live close by, walking and biking are great ways to save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and get a little exercise to boot.  If you offer telecommuting, make that option available this Earth Day.  Have your employees organize a carpool or take public transportation that day.  You might find you can adopt this practice for more than simply one day a year.

If your office hasn’t made the switch to recycling, start a new habit on April 22nd.  If you’ve already transitioned to recycle bins, take the next step in your recycling program by switching to recycled paper products, like copy paper and towels.  If your whole office can’t make the switch but you recycle at home, commit to saving your own cans, cardboard boxes, and glass bottles to take home for the recycle bin.

Other habits you can start this Earth Day to make a difference include refilling your water bottle for a week or bringing re-usable water bottles and coffee mugs to work.  Pack your lunch one day a week.  Not only will you cut down on waste such as Styrofoam take-out packaging and plastic flatware, you’ll save a little coin too.  Some folks are bringing personal hand towels to work to cut down on paper waste.  There are fast-drying towels on the market now which are sized perfectly for purses or bags.  Can you go paperless for a day?  How about using both sides of the paper for one day?  Start little, but think big.

Go Green – Literally

Add plants to your workspace.  Folks, there is no down side to this suggestion.  Plants are an inexpensive way to beautify the workplace, keep the air clean, and lower stress.  Plants generate fresh oxygen and soak up a lot of bad stuff you didn’t even realize you’re breathing.  NASA compiled a list of plants that are the best at removing toxins from the air – things like formaldehyde and benzene – that may be found in furniture, dry cleaning, inks, cleaners, plastics, detergents, etc.  So, consider adding these beauties to your workplace:

Add plants to your workspace.  Folks, there is no down side to this suggestion.  Plants are an inexpensive way to beautify the workplace, keep the air clean, and lower stress.  Plants generate fresh oxygen and soak up a lot of bad stuff you didn’t even realize you’re breathing.  NASA compiled a list of plants that are the best at removing toxins from the air – things like formaldehyde and benzene – that may be found in furniture, dry cleaning, inks, cleaners, plastics, detergents, etc.  So, consider adding these beauties to your workplace:

• Aloe Vera: It needs a sunny spot, but it also removes toxins and is good for cuts and burns.
• Spider plant: This plant is hard to kill – a prime choice for the black thumb who loves plants.
• Peace lily: These lovelies can grow with just indoor light and once-a-week watering.
• English ivy: You should look up what this removes from the air.  You’ll thank me.  I plan to buy 10.
• Bamboo palm: This plant thrives in the shade and can live in water if you choose to do it that way.

I recommend you check out NASA’s complete list to find the plants perfect for your office space.
So, this Earth Day, April 22nd, go do something green.  It’s easier than you think.  If you have any suggestions for going green at the office, I’d love to hear your views.


I continue to read and hear more about businesses converting to open workplaces.  This typically means a conversion from closed physical offices to open floor plans utilizing large common areas.  There are pros and cons to both formats and, as with most things in life, there’s a happy medium that maximizes the benefits to your business and minimizes the detrimental impact that such a physical organization can have on your workplace.  The “happy medium” is as unique as a fingerprint, so a quick summary of the pros and cons can put you on the right path.

On the positive side, an open workplace has several economic benefits.  It tends to permit more efficient utilization of the space available.  An open workplace is flexible, meaning it can be shaped and re-shaped until the format which works best is discovered.  From a practical standpoint, the space available is greater because pesky things like walls aren’t taking up a bunch of room.  It also allows for the sharing of pricier business equipment, like printers and copiers.  Smaller business supplies can also be shared, but I’m in the Milton camp – spring for the individual Swinglines!

Additionally, the open workplace is usually easier to supervise because management and staff are located in one spot.  This also permits issues to be dealt with faster because they can be raised immediately with management.  The open format even adapts more readily to evolving staffing needs over time.

The greatest advantage set forth in all of the information I have taken in is that an open floor plan leads to improved innovation and creativity because communication and collaboration are enhanced.  Increased interaction fosters camaraderie and improves employee morale.  Removing barriers to communications allows the free exchange of ideas and encourages teamwork, and removing barriers to management lends itself to improving employee satisfaction.

Each of these pros, however, has a corresponding con.  While having everyone in one spot is conducive to collaboration, just think about flu season in a kindergarten classroom.  Wipe out!  The same principle applies here, and I don’t care if you buy stock in the anti-bacterial hand gel company or if you ARE the anti-bacterial hand gel company.

The increased ability to communicate also has its own pitfalls.  The first is excess noise.  Many of us have worked in offices that have that one individual who is loud on the phone.  The open office doesn’t allow you to shut the door on that kind of noise.  And, it’s not just one voice in the room.  It could be dozens of voices in the room.  While the open workplace has private areas that may be utilized by employees needing some quiet time, the reduction in concentration overall may cancel out the benefits derived from creative teamwork.

One final hurdle to the open workplace is corporate culture.  In theory, today’s generation is more accustomed to working in a large, collaborative grouping, but the science says that the impact of an open workplace on the ability to concentrate and remain undistracted is just as great as with any other generation.  What the Millennials do have on the rest of us is fewer pre-conceived notions about the value of the “corner office.”  Many workers already out there have an expectation that their loyalty and hard work will be rewarded with their own office.  Having that private space taken away may be viewed as a drop in status if corporate culture does not evolve with the office layout.

Open office workplace will not work for everyone.  My field is particularly ill-suited for that kind of arrangement because of the intense need to concentrate and to maintain client confidentiality.  On the other hand, those in marketing, advertising, or journalism may find that the boost to creativity outweighs any downfalls.  Even if wide, open spaces won’t work for your entire business, you may find certain departments benefit from the arrangement.

I’d love to hear your views on flexible workplaces.


If you recognize the quote above, congratulations – you have excellent taste in TV viewing.  In Season 2, Episode 13 of The Big Bang Theory – The Friendship Algorithm – one of the stars of that excellent series, Sheldon, develops a survey to determine why his current friends like him.  His survey is 211 questions long and, as he reassures another character, Penny, it should take no longer than 3 hours to complete.  In response, Penny questions whether the survey is the best way to approach the paradigm of making friends.  Before an employer uses a survey in the workplace, that same question should be asked.  When is a workplace survey appropriate?

Personally, I’m on the fence about workplace surveys.  There are many pros and cons to be considered.  Plus, the conditions under which surveys are conducted can really impact the efficacy of the results.  In fact, just since my last column, I’ve taken and re-taken several on-line quizzes which can be used by employers to assess their employees’ skills.  I got different results each time, and while I completed them in the same location (my office), I can tell you that – for example – the weather conditions outside my window were different (sunny vs. cloudy), just like my attitudes on those days (also, sunny vs. cloudy) were different, as well.  The point is that there are factors outside your control when you administer a workplace survey, and those factors can have a big impact on your results.  Also remember that the survey is a snapshot in time.  You should consider this when you evaluate the information you receive from the survey.

If you do choose to use a workplace survey, one suggestion for controlling certain environmental factors is to conduct the surveys in-person, in a group setting.  This has several advantages.  First, you tend to get much higher participation rates than if you ask that an online or mail-in survey be completed.  Second, you can control the atmosphere in which the survey is taken.  Lighting, temperature, timing – all of these can be adjusted to ideal conditions.  Finally, anonymity (perceived or actual) is enhanced in the group setting.  Employees believe that their emails can be tracked specifically, so using email to conduct a survey leaves a perceived trail back to the employee.  This perception can stifle free expression.  It is only through honest and open communication that you can obtain the information you need to improve your organization.

Speaking of this last point, let’s spend a moment talking about communication.  A workplace survey is one form of communicating between employees and management.  Surveys allow an employer to obtain their employees’ views on a wide variety of subjects.  In turn, this can focus management on the areas of business in need of attention or on what it is doing right.  A good survey can empower employees to share new ideas which may otherwise go unheard because the employee can take a chance on voicing those ideas without fear of retaliation or humiliation.

A bad survey, on the other hand, can damage an organization.  Workplace surveys must have top management buy-in.  If your business is not willing to make changes based on what a survey reveals to you, then don’t use one.  It will kill the morale you were hoping to build with your employees when you ask them to be included in the change process and then never follow through.

Poor communication during the survey process can be damaging, as well.  You cannot assume that your survey is self-explanatory.  What is an employee to do when their answer is not included amongst the choices?  Who does an employee ask for clarification?  Beyond that issue, think big picture.  You should explain the purpose of the survey to your employees.  You also should communicate the results to them.  Additionally, you should narrow the topics the survey covers (211 questions with a 3 hour time expectation – whether about friendship or otherwise – would be an example of a bad survey).  Further, you should tailor the survey to your organization.  The surveys you find on-line won’t necessarily work for you or gather the information you require to meet your goals.

Workplace surveys have become ubiquitous.  Thoughtful use of them can have beneficial effects on your business.  However, there are obstacles to using surveys, too.  Overuse, failure to tailor, and lack of communication can lead to poor results from employees who simply won’t take the surveys seriously any more.  Don’t fall into the trap Sheldon made for himself.  In my view, use workplace surveys correctly, or don’t use them at all.



These past few days, I’ve enjoyed reading articles and watching movies describing the predictions made many years ago about how our society would look today.  For example, Back to the Future 2, which takes place in 2015, got a few things right (even if not many of those “predictions” dealt with the workplace – fax machines and teleconferencing notwithstanding).  A 1967 article in U.S. News & World Report made some wacky predictions, like computers in the home and a “checkless” economy in which people would tell their banks who to pay.  Not bad, but the article also predicted we would be a more ocean algae consuming society, too.  Now, the prediction that laundry rooms would be a thing of the past, replaced by a unit that would intake soiled clothing and emit ready to wear clothing out its other end, is one I’ve still got my fingers crossed on as I make my workplace predictions for 2025: Read More »


Many thanks to Dr. Seuss for the inspiration

Everyone down in HR-ville
liked Christmas a lot.

But the boss, in his office upstairs,
He did NOT!

The boss hated parties,
the whole holiday season.
Free turkeys, Secret Santa,
I’m not even teasin’.

It could be he was stingy,
wouldn’t part with a dime.
It could be he was busy,
he hadn’t the time.
But, I think the reason most likely of all
Was his brain was not one but two sizes too small.

A year of bad decisions,
kept us on our toes.
Now with the holidays,
The Boss could fix all our woes.
Yet, he looks at our festivities
with a frown on his face.
While each employee decorates
his or her small, cube-y space.

The workers would arrive
for a lunchtime feast.
And they’d feast.  And they’d feast.
Oh for hours they’d feast!
On pies and baked hams and . . . (wait for it)
even roast beast.
All this non-working time the Boss couldn’t stand in the least.

He tried to stop it from coming.
He worked at it year-long.
There was that Like-Liker, a Facebook king.
He chimed in on this, that, and every thing,
including the Boss’s management styling.

“Can him!” the Boss said.
“Set him free for his ‘likes’”
“And for everyone’s comments on me,
I’ll have heads on some pikes.”
“Wait,” cried HR, “but the N-L-R-B,
says we mustn’t punish for solidar-ity.”

“Well, how about Cindy, head of that bunch,
who plans walks and book clubs and holiday brunch.
She takes too much time away from her filing,
expressing milk on her breaks like she’s always stockpiling.
Certainly, she is ripe for a firing.”

But the law is the law
for both HR and bosses.
That’s a no-no that will bring
many lawsuiting losses.
So, Cindy is safe
and the Like-Liker too.
So, Mr. Boss, find something nicer to do.

So the Boss thought
and he thought.
And he came up with a plan.
A sneaky, stinky, slimey plan!

“I’ve got just the thing
to put a wrench in their fun.”
So, he stayed late that night
and undid all they’d done.
He took down their stockings,
their ribbons, their bows.
He took down the tree
and hid it below
And tossed away bags of fluffy fake snow.

The next day came workers
ready to celebrate with joy.
And the Boss in his office,
all innocent and coy,
Waited to hear them all wimper
like a little girl or a boy,
Who has just lost his or her favorite toy.

He waited and listened
and what did he hear.
Happy holidays! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
So, he peeked out the door
to see it all with his eyes.
And that’s when the Boss got his biggest surprise:
Christmas came on its own without ribbons or ties.

The Boss stood there puzzled,
couldn’t figure it out.
He’d done all he could.
He hadn’t a doubt.
Yet, the workers had smiles,
gave hugs and kisses.
They laughed and joked
and wished holiday wishes.

Then, the Like-Liker and Cindy
headed his way
With a box wrapped with tissue,
most festive and gay.
#1 Boss said the mug
which in that box lay.

And, what happened then?
Well, the Boss says it’s true.
The size of his brain grew and it grew.
He got it.  He did.  He finally knew.
So he fetched the tree and the trimmings,
spread joy all about.
That was the day he became a better boss, there was no doubt.
The Holiday Spirit – it can’t be shut out.



The beginning of a workweek is hectic for most people, and it’s no different in HR. Nothing quite throws you off your game as showing up Monday morning and unexpectedly learning that two employees have quit.  Here are a few thoughts on how you can make your Mondays a little less manic.

Start preparing early

At the end of the week, take a little bit of time to clear your desk and tie up loose ends.  If you’re in the middle of a project at the close of business on Friday, get yourself to a logical stopping point.  Make notes of where you need to pick up when you return.  Set reminders on your phone/calendar for the following week.  Then, clean your desk off.  Nothing makes a Monday a little more manageable than a clear surface greeting you in the morning.

Use your time over the weekend to handle things that may distract you during the week. Then, spend a little time on Sunday getting ready for the big day.  If you can get through any of your emails, you will be able to hit the ground running Monday morning.  Also, consider getting to work 30 minutes early to start the week.  That little bit of extra time could mean the difference between beginning your day with a frown or a smile.

Make a list

I am a huge proponent of lists.  I love marking things off of them.  It gives me a sense of power over my work, and that feeling is magnified when things appear overwhelming.  Make a To-Do List for your week.  Then, take that list and break it down into manageable parts that you can accomplish on a daily basis.

Schedule wisely 

One suggestion that may help you accurately schedule tasks is to keep track of how long it takes you to work through your routine duties.  If you only schedule an hour to enter and review payroll, but it really takes you three hours to do it, you will be perpetually behind schedule.

Emails can be a major time suck, even when you tackle some of them the night before your workweek begins.  Schedule times throughout the course of the day to address email messages rather than handling them as they come in, which takes you away from some other task you’re trying to mark off your list.

Finally, when you make your schedule, work on projects requiring the most brain power when you are at your best.  If you hit the 2 p.m. slump like I do, set aside that time for one of your more mundane tasks.

Learn from your mistakes 

At the end of the day, see where and how you were derailed from your list.  Is there something you could do differently to make sure this doesn’t happen to you tomorrow?  You may find that a few tweaks to your schedule enables you to maintain higher productivity.  Don’t accept defeat.  After all, Monday is never more than a week away.


Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs and activities.  Recently, the spotlight on Title IX has zeroed in on sexual violence in schools.  The month of April saw a lot of activity in this area with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights issuing a Q&A on the subject.  Additionally, the White House issued its first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, and launched, a website designed to educate students, parents, educators, and schools on ways to deal with sexual violence.  Congress is also in on the action, having recently amended the Clery Act via the Violence Against Women Act, requiring reporting on additional campus crimes and proposing further amendments at the end of July.

For educational institutions, the duties they have towards students under these laws are evolving quickly.  Of course, that makes staying on top of the changes challenging.  The keys to compliance will be training and updating policies.  With regard to training, you need to know who your “Responsible Employees” are under the law.  Responsible Employees are the folks at your institution whose knowledge of sexual misconduct can be imputed to the institution.  They include any employee (1) who has the authority to redress sexual violence or harassment, (2) who has been given the duty of reporting incidents of sexual violence or other misconduct to the Title IX Coordinator or other appropriate school designee, or (3) whom a student could reasonably believe has this authority or duty.  Your policies should define who these individuals will be, and it’s important that they get some very specific training on their responsibilities (detailed below).

Here are the basics of what your policies and training should do:

  • Define the following terms: sexual harassment, sexual violence, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking
  • Prohibit dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking
  • Disseminate a Notice of Nondiscrimination
  • Designate a Title IX Coordinator with contact information
  • Establish grievance procedures for prompt, equitable resolution of complaints
  • Define who the Responsible Employees are
  • Identify who can accept confidential reports of sexual misconduct
  • Train Responsible Employees to:
    • Inform students before they reveal information they may wish to keep confidential of their duty to report certain information to the Title IX coordinator
    • Inform students who may accept confidential reports
    • Inform students of their option to ask the school to maintain confidentiality
    • Inform students of their right to file a Title IX complaint with the school and to report the crime to campus or local law enforcement
    • Provide students with information regarding campus resources for assistance
    • Provide students with information regarding off-campus resources for assistance
    • Discuss safety issues
  • Prohibit retaliation against anyone participating in the process

These are just the basics, which already represents a tall order.  What I’ve noticed in talking with educators and students is that the practicalities of the situation make compliance challenging.  One educator asked me, “how am I to interrupt a sobbing student to let her know that I can’t keep her confidences if she tells me she was assaulted?”  The law seeks to protect victims as much as possible, but the reality comes across uncaring because there’s a list of information you have to provide to a traumatized student.  Certainly, additional training in how to deal with victims of sexual assault could be helpful to your Responsible Employees.

Highlighting another problem was a Resident Assistant who asked: “Some of these people are my friends.  Are you telling me that if someone comes to me as a friend and says she was assaulted, I have to tell on her?”  The answer was “yes.”  In my view, the fact that some students are Responsible Employees for institutions of higher learning is particularly fraught with compliance dangers.  Not only are these students asked to remember a litany of information, they must report on their friends and live in conditions where they may be subjected to retaliation from the alleged perpetrator and his or her friends for making legally-required reports.  Clearly, the disincentives of reporting from the front lines are significant.

As I mentioned, all of this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Talk to your counsel for legal advice.  Talk to your abuse crisis counselors for assistance with the psychological aspects of Title IX.  Talk to each other.  And don’t hesitate to drop me a line here with your own views on the new Title IX, either.


Within the last week, allegations of harassment at the San Diego Comic-Con were in the forefront of every Vulcan Mind-Meld as Geeks for CONsent petitioned the 45 year old convention for better anti-harassment policies and procedures.  They took this step since some attendees have found themselves subject to unwanted groping, photography, and verbal bedevilment based upon their choice of costume, as well as traditional protected traits.  CONsent says the San Diego convention’s Code of Conduct is just not enough.  They want to see a formal anti-harassment policy adopted that provides for a reporting mechanism, publication throughout the convention of zero-tolerance enforcement mechanisms, and training for volunteers who will be responding to harassment reports.

Do these requests sound familiar?  They should if you have an anti-harassment policy in your workplace.  Effective policies require reporting and enforcement mechanisms and the 3 Ts:  training, training, and training.  In fact, the stories I’ve read this week make me think they should address a little more.  Admittedly, Comic-Con’s four sentence Code of Conduct is insufficient in any employment setting.  It’s also true that most work environments have a somewhat more conservative dress code.  However, the lesson to be learned from this fantasy world is that effective harassment policies should take into consideration the particular challenges of your workplace.

For instance – and keeping with the theme – the Grand Poobah of Comics, the legendary Stan Lee, has a fairly broad anti-harassment policy for his Comikaze Expo, protecting participants from harassment on the basis of “gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.”  The policy further provides specific examples of harassing behavior, including not only offensive comments and touching, but also convention-particular concerns such as stalking and harassing photography and recording.

In another example, Central Coast Comic-Con makes it clear what consequences may follow harassing behavior, including removal from the premises, criminal charges, and more.  Its policy directs anyone who feels they are being harassed or who believes they are witnessing questionable behavior to bring it to the attention of any staff member, security, or volunteer for appropriate action.

In an environment fraught with the potential for inappropriate behavior, where people may feel anonymous due to cape and cowl, the need for effective controls is as clear as the light emanating from Hal Jordan’s lantern.  Anti-harassment policies are about prevention.  Make sure your policy is addressing the realities of your workplace.  As the experience at Comic-Con shows, harassment is not just a fantasy.  Don’t let it become a reality for you.


Vacations and weddings and Daisy Dukes, Oh My!  The challenges facing HR in the summer are unique compared to other times of the year.  As we just hit the official start of the warm weather season, here are a few things HR should be considering as the heat index rises.

Vacations and Leave

The kiddies are home from school.  Adventure awaits everyone.  For some, perhaps batteries simply need recharging.  Either way, summer months are packed with reasons employees need time off.  Still, work needs to get done, so review those vacation, leave, and sick policies to make sure they are clear and comprehensive.  Do your policies address how vacation is requested, how much notice is required, and what criteria will be used for approving vacations – particularly where more than one employee is requesting the same set of dates?  If employees have already burned up their vacation time before summer, does your company allow for unpaid vacation leave?  If an employee wants to stretch their vacation, by covering a holiday or by using sick leave, how do your policies address those efforts?  By having clear policies and enforcing them, you can avoid a lot of headaches in scheduling while still ensuring that your employees get requested time off.

Office Picnics and Other Outings 

Summer also is a great time to gather your employees together for some outdoor fellowship.  If you plan or hold these events, there are a few things you should keep in mind.  First, if alcohol is served, you need to be sure your underage employees are not being served.  Designated drivers should be arranged.  And, having someone keep an eye on the conduct of those consuming alcohol can avoid problems with inappropriate behavior.  Additionally, because your office picnic is still a workplace event, appropriate attire should be worn.  Finally, bear in mind that injuries at these types of events may raise workers’ compensation issues.

Work Attire 

When the temperature rises, employees may be more inclined to wear tank tops, shorter skirts, sandals or flip flops, or even shorts to work.  If your workplace is conducive to these types of clothing, more power to you.  If your organization is like most, however, you need to be concerned about whether your company policies address appropriate attire during the summer months.  Be specific about what is and is not permitted.  Also, in considering your policy, think about the safety issues that may be implicated by clothing choice.  

Outdoor Work 

If you have employees who work outside, the summer heat can be a threat to their health and well-being.  If you log onto right now, you will see a vibrant red notice entitled “Preventing Heat Illness in Outdoor Workers.”  Click here to get important and helpful information for protecting your outdoor workers during these warm summer months.

In my view, it’s best to think about these issues before they become issues.  A little advanced planning can go a long way towards fixing your summertime HR blues.


“The tongue like a sharp knife . . . Kills without drawing blood.”  ~ Buddha

Perhaps gossip is a part of life, but it shouldn’t be a large part of your business’s work life.  The rumor mill is a poison in the system of a healthy organization, and the impacts are many.  It lowers productivity because workers engaged in gossip are not engaged in their jobs.  For those who are the victims of gossip, their morale and productivity suffer because their minds cannot be drawn away from the anger, mistrust, and hurt such gossip causes them, and some may feel forced to resign as a result.  Trust – the building block for teamwork and harmony – is utterly destroyed by malicious gossip.  Worse, if the gossip leaks outside of your organization, it can harm your business reputation and your bottom line.

If I don’t have your attention yet – or if you think there’s nothing to be done because gossip is a fact of life – allow me to give you some real life examples I’ve come across in my research which might get your attention or change your mind.  I saw one example in which team members on a project began whispering about one of their teammates who supposedly wasn’t getting her work done and was leaving during the day.  This group speculated about what she was doing when she sneaked off.  Eventually, the co-worker heard the rumors about her and became upset.  She had been staying late and working weekends to try to keep up with her part of the project.  She finally felt that she had to stop the rumor mill by telling everyone that her child had just been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and that she had been taking her daughter to specialists for treatment.  This worker was not yet ready to share this deeply personal matter, but she felt she had to in order to protect herself at work.

In another example, an employee at an off-site work conference decided it was a good idea to follow two co-workers – the two being long-term friends – who stopped by one of their hotel rooms for a couple of minutes to retrieve something before re-joining their peers at a conference activity.  Using a cell phone, the employee recorded the two co-workers entering the hotel room, but did not stay to record their exit moments later.  The employee who recorded the footage then showed the video to another co-worker who passed it along to the would-be fiancée of one of the videoed employees, along with an opinion that these co-workers had “hooked up.”  Do you think that rumor negatively impacted the ability of the video-taped employee to trust co-workers, not knowing who recorded the video?  How about the employee’s productivity because of all the time spent dealing with the emotional fallout?  Of course, there was a great impact on the personal life of the video-taped employee, too.

Not all rumors are bad, and not all rumors deserve addressing, but employers should be prepared to deal with them effectively nonetheless.  A rumor about the projected increased revenues for a business can have a salutary effect upon stock prices and is an example of a good rumor.  A rumor concerning the future of your organization as a going concern is probably one that top management would want to address quickly, with as many facts as possible, because the damage done by rumor is swift and terrible to behold.  Petty rumors can usually be ignored because it’s the matter of discussing them which extends their shelf life.

So, what can an employer do to abate the damage of gossip in the workplace?  One thing that can be done is to lead by example.  If you have an issue with a co-worker, approach that individual directly and talk about it.  If someone comes to you with a “juicy tidbit of gossip,” talk to them about the inappropriateness of gossiping.  If you have information to discredit the rumor, then share it.  If you can educate your co-workers on the harms of gossip, to both themselves and the victims, then perhaps those people will limit this type of behavior in the future.  Folks in HR may be particularly helpful in this form of grassroots behavior modification because they can identify employees who can be educated to lead by example, which helps stop the rumor mill before it gets rolling.  HR may also be able to identify the chief gossipers in the workforce and educate them to stop the behavior.  Another method to change the culture at the workplace is to hold group meetings of employees where you discuss how gossip is damaging and ask them to place themselves in the victim’s position.  Give examples of what constitutes gossip and rumor (as I did), then let your employees know gossip won’t be tolerated.

Bear in mind, rumor and gossip can have legal ramifications.  A hostile work environment may be created or discrimination perpetuated.  It also may lead to claims of invasion of privacy or defamation, if the circumstances are right.  Employers should address workplace gossip for these reasons, if nothing else.  If you have ever had to conduct a workplace investigation, you know that the rumor mill runs out of control during these times.  And, typically, the employer is proscribed from sharing any real information with workers to combat these rumors.  That’s why having the right culture and policies in place can make a huge difference.

Another thing you can do to institute the right culture is be sure you have the right policies in place to help keep the peace.  Most of them you probably already have in your handbook, but maybe they need a few tweaks.  Notwithstanding everything you have read up to this point, be careful with “no gossiping” policies, per se.  The National Labor Relations Act protects the right of employees to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment.  A no gossip policy might be too broad and, therefore, deemed to infringe on those rights.  A public employer may also have First Amendment concerns if the subject of the gossip is also speech on a matter of public concern.  However, your code of conduct and your disciplinary policy can address certain behaviors which create discord and threaten harmony, making unacceptable activities subject to discipline.  Also, an “open door” policy – where employees can feel free to address their concerns to management and obtain factual information in response – is often a useful tool in combating a rumor before it begins.  Additionally, a good anti-harassment/anti-discrimination policy will usually cover malicious personal rumors.  Just make sure employees are trained on examples demonstrating this coverage.  Don’t forget that your business device/cell phone use policies can cover the pernicious and surreptitious recording of employees, and your email and electronic communications policy is vital to stopping the spread of electronic gossip and rumor, too.

In my view, stopping harassment requires stepping into the shoes of the victim, seriously considering the damage gossip inflicts on persons and on businesses, and then not doing it (or doing something to stop it).  Getting your employees to think twice before engaging in this type of behavior is priceless.  Do you share the same view?