The news late Thursday afternoon came without warning from friends, a co-worker, and of course, Twitter.  There was another death of a popular star.  Suddenly. Tragically. 

Jeff Goldblum was dead.Courtesy Wikipedia Commons - Hal Hartley Photos

Except he wasn’t.

And yet, in the span of a day — when the world lost Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson — a rumor was spreading that actor Jeff Goldblum was the third star to pass away.  After all, bad things happen in threes.  But it turns out it was completely false.  

The news brought to mind situations where an employer is faced with the similar "dark side". Rumors. Innuendo. Gossip.  

Word spreads fast in a workplace. Even faster now with e-mail.  And for employees, rumors can be toxic, as an old New York Times article explains.  

So, what’s an employer to do? 

Well, the specifics first depend on the facts. Is the rumor that an employee is on drugs? Having an affair? Has mental issues? Or, my favorite, doesn’t take showers?  

Or is it more general about the company. Is it a rumor that the company is about to layoff employees? Or that the company is in financial difficulties? Or that the chief executive officer is having a liver transplant?

And what’s exactly happening? Is e-mail usage about it going up?Is there lots of talk behind closed doors?

Each of these situations (and the many others that get spread) has different levels of response.  

For example, perceiving that an employee is disabled may bring claims under the ADA so an employer can discuss with a supervisor ways to comply with the law.

On the other hand, a reminder that harassing, humiliating or abusive comments about another employee via e-mail might be enough to stop rumors about the sudden disappearance of gray from an employee’s head.  

How else can a company react?  Some practical suggestions include:

  • Reinforce that the company computers are to be used for company-related business and that inappropriate e-mails such as sexual innuendo will not be tolerated.
  • If it persists, consider whether you want to engage in  "electronic monitoring" of your computer system upon proper notice to your workforce
  • Maintain consistent intra-corporate communications.  In the absence of facts, rumors can spread fast.
  • Every office seems to have an outlaw or two. Talk with them and make sure they understand that spreading gossip will not be tolerated.
  • Address rumors immediately.  The speed of the Jeff Goldblum rumor on Thursday reinforces that fact to me.  

And if you hear the rumor today that Jeff Goldblum is dead, you can put a stop to that too.