February 18, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Janet, Laura and Maggie (names changed) are preschool teachers at a Christian school in San Bernardino. The divorced friends are in their mid-30s, and with their children, share a house together.
The school has a contractual policy requiring adherence to Christian principles of honesty and against any form of homosexual behavior by either teachers or students. Under current law, religious schools are free to have such policies, while public or for-profit private schools may not.
All were physical education majors and are still active in competitive sports. But there was something about their appearance that bothered another teacher for a long time.
“If they aren’t lesbians, then they must be overgrown tomboys,” Tiffany told several colleagues at school one day. “I am certain they are gay!” she announced later to another group of both preschool and kindergarten teachers, adding one interesting “fact,” as she described it. “I have seen a photograph of them kissing each other, here, on the campus!”
Odd looks and whispers
But there was no such photograph. Yet, within hours of this malicious gossip, the lives of three completely innocent people were turned upside down. If anything threatened a “hostile work environment lawsuit,” this did.
When word of this gay issue reached the principal, she asked the school’s attorney to conduct a thorough investigation. The day selected was a Friday, for if a decision to terminate was going to be made, there would be time to clear out personal belongings and arrange for a replacement.
“First of all, we are not gay! We got the strangest looks from so many people. When we found out what was being said of us, we were all in tears,” they told the school’s lawyer, who asked that I keep his name confidential.
“This is not an issue of your sexuality,” he replied. “Rather, Tiffany has clearly created a hostile work environment by gossiping and spreading rumors. Office gossip about sex or sexual orientation is an invitation for a lawsuit, something the school does not want.”
Over the course of several hours, the attorney discovered that Tiffany — whose mother is a minister, if you can believe that — had originated false rumors about one teacher allegedly being physically abusive to a student, and that another instructor’s daughter was pregnant! She had been warned to knock it off by a supervisor.
“I concluded that little Tiffany is malicious and a danger to the school. I felt a personal sense of relief in telling her to collect her things on Saturday,” he told me.
The types of gossip that will get you fired
If anyone is looking for a place in line at the unemployment office, then just spread the word that your supervisor is having an affair with the CEO’s wife. That will earn real brownie points.
Or, speculate aloud about a co-worker’s alcohol issues or addiction to porn and drugs, and possibly having a sexually transmitted disease. Let everyone know that Bill had a DUI 10 years ago — a fact he’s ashamed of.
What? Sue got fired from Wal-Mart five years ago for stealing? Let everyone know you can’t trust her. She just might get your job.
Gossip denounced by all major religions
All major religions denounce the spreading of rumor and gossip. What appears in holy books applies to the workplace for the same reasons. Rumor and gossip is destructive, even if true. If certain information is relevant to the job, it should be told to a supervisor, or the HR department, in confidence.
Gossip damages morale, creates doubt, anger and frustration, a perfect recipe for workplace violence or a suit against the employer — and gossiper — on a variety of legal theories. “I learned in this investigation the truth of the saying, ‘If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all,’ ” the school’s lawyer so correctly stated.
No warnings necessary
While Tiffany was merely warned to cool it, it is possible to be fired after a single episode of gossiping about a co-worker. It will depend upon what was said and the degree of harm caused.
After Tiffany was gone, without mentioning her name, a schoolwide meeting was held with faculty and support staff. They talked about the seriousness of gossip and rumor, and what it can do to an organization.
“Cut a feather pillow open, on a windy day, walk to an open window and shake the pillow. After the feathers are gone, gather each one and bring them back. It is impossible, as it is equally impossible to take back all the unkind things said about others.” (Paraphrased from “Who Knows Ten? Children’s Tales of the Ten Commandments” by Molly Cone.)
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.