Office Gossiping – Grounds for Dismissal?

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Business executive making fun of colleague in office

Gossiping is often known as a threat to team work within an organisation. It affects relationship between co-workers and creates unnecessary assumptions and speculations, often leading towards negative results. The big question is whether office gossiping amounts to misconduct and if so, whether it is sufficient to justify dismissal. 

The issue of gossip has been deliberated by the Industrial Court of Malaysia. In the case of Malaysia National Insurance Berhad v Ratnawati Mohamed Nawawi [2007] 1 ILR 189, the PA to the Chairman of the Company was terminated because she was gossiping through the company’s computer. She was also charged with using derogatory and vulgar language against some senior officers. The Industrial Court held that the dismissal of Ratnawati was unlawful based on the following reasons:

  • “It is quite common and natural for staff to gossip about their superior officers. It can happen anywhere and anytime especially when there is a gathering. It could be over coffee or tea or a meal that the gossip could happen. In the instant case it happens to be in the emails of the claimant and her friends. The court believes the claimant’s story that it was not meant to undermine any senior officers but merely a tea-room gossip. It was only meant to be within the knowledge of four friends.”

With regards to the usage of vulgar language, the Court commented as follows:

  • “There is no doubt the words used were vulgar and derogatory… However those words were not used directly in the fact of the senior officers. It would be a clear case of misconduct if it was said directly to the officers concerned.”

Several other cases were brought before the Industrial Court over the years and the Court has consistently applied the principles outlined above. Through that, it appears gossiping does not give rise to a direct cause of action in which case employers ought to explore alternative options to handle this challenge. Some suggestions are as follow:

  • Determine if the gossiping can give rise to other courses of action, i.e. insubordination, unprofessional conduct, misuse of company phone/laptop, etc. This means the gossiping must have impacted the Company / or an officer of the Company directly (as opposed to merely having sight or witnessing a conversation).
  • Consistently promote a healthy, trustworthy and positive culture from within – promote positivism.
  • Confront issues and address concerns openly.
  • Provide an outlet for employees to vent their challenges and frustrations. Gossips happen when an outlet is not readily available or if employees feel that their voices don’t count.
  • Raising awareness and providing training for Managers to handle misconduct effectively.