There’s an old(?) Bonnie Raitt song that my parents used to listen to when I was in college called “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About”.  It’s about a crush, but the intro could be just as applicable to a new court decision. The lyrics start: “People are talkin’, talkin’ ’bout people, I hear them whisper, you won’t believe it.”

The short lesson? Don’t give your employees something to talk about — namely when a lawsuit is filed, caution is strongly advised in distributing information about that lawsuit.  Interested in more? My colleague, Gary Starr, shares more:

A recent Connecticut district court decision (EEOC v. Day & Zimmerman NPS) is a cautionary tale for in-house lawyers and human resource managers who want to tell employees about an investigation into discrimination claim brought by a former employee, and that investigation may involve those employees.

Following a disability discrimination charge, the EEOC sought contact information about other employees as well as information about their employment.

Rather than simply advise the employees that the EEOC was being provided with their job title, dates of employment, home address, and phone number, the company also described the accommodation that was requested and information that the former employee’s doctor had indicated that without the accommodation, the employee could not perform the essential functions of the job.

The EEOC viewed this as retaliation against the former employee by disclosing the information and interference with the rights of the employees receiving the letter as the agency thought it would discourage others from making claims in the future out of concern that their personal information would be shared widely.

The Company’s efforts to justify the letter were rejected by the court, which decided that a jury will have to decide whether the letter was retaliation and/or interference.

In communicating with potential witnesses in an agency investigation or lawsuit, employers must be clear on why the notice is being sent.  And employers should exercise caution on deciding what information is being shared.  What the decision suggests is that employees do not need to know what the medical condition another employee may have, what accommodation has been requested by that employee, or what recommendation a doctor has made about the employee.

Letting employees know that their contact information has been given to the EEOC and that they may be contacted would likely have have been sufficient and not opened up the employer to criticism.  And the decision does suggest that offering them the choice of having a lawyer present should not interfere with their rights.

In this instance, less information is better than more.

In any case, in the unlikely event you do need to inform employees about a lawsuit, check with your counsel about the details you should (and should not) be sending.

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.  

Give us Dirty Laundry! — Don Henley, "Dirty Laundry"

The Eagles singer may have been talking about the media over 25 years ago when he released courtesy morgue filehis hit single, "Dirty Laundry", but the lyrics and message could be applied just as easily today to online message boards. 

They have all the same criteria that Henley alluded to in the song: Innuendo, Gossip, and even Mean-Spiritedness. 

Indeed, a series of posts in the New York Times’ Shifting Careers blog over the last week or two discusses the consequences of the online postings for the workplace and suggests that restrictive covenants on employees (like non-disclosure agreements) may be one way to cut down on such postings.

But people being people, there will always be those who will complain anonymous online.  What to do about it? In some cases, ignoring it may be the best solution.  But if the posts reveal confidential information or make false or disparaging remarks, particularly about the ethics or legality of a business decision, legal action may be needed.

Here’s the truth though about online message boards: while some have popped up, they have also been all over the place. There really hasn’t been any key websites that have taken root with such information. (Yes, I know people get worked up on the Yahoo! Finance Boards, but it’s not as widespread as you might think.)

Until, perhaps, now. A new website, launched in beta mode last month, promises to take employee grievances (and praises) to a whole new level.

It is called Glassdoor.com and its founders have impressive and well-known resumes from websites such as Hotwire and Zillow

What is it? In their own words:

Glassdoor.com is a career and workplace community where anyone can find and anonymously share real-time reviews, ratings and salary details about specific jobs for specific employers — all for free. What sets us apart is that all our information comes from the people who know these companies best — employees. In the spirit of community, we ask our users to share with each other. That is, before you can access all of the information shared by others in the Glassdoor community, we first ask that you post an anonymous review or salary of your own. By working together to offer an inside look at companies, we can open access and bring greater transparency to information in one of the most important parts of our lives — our work.

What types of information does the website already have online?  Detailed company reviews;
Employee ratings on workplace factors and leadership; Real-time salary/compensation details by title and company.

For companies, this website ought to be a wake-up call.   It was only a matter of time before someone created the tools to allow employees to communicate with each other and the outside world in a seamless fashion.  And wishing it away will not change anything — the Internet is obviously here to stay.

The only path now for companies is how to address this issue.  Because companies will address these issues in multiple ways, seeking some guidance on how others have handled this issue and seeking sensible solutions may be a good start. But central to all of this is that companies must understand what is already out there — in terms of technology  and in terms of what is written about their company.

And a peek at Glassdoor.com may not hurt either.