Have you heard the one about the office workers who were sacked for gossiping?
Gossip in the workplace may be salacious and sometimes downright nasty but is not necessarily a sackable offence - in the UK at least - according to employment lawyer Tom Long in the Birmingham office of DLA Piper.
Four employees in the US claim they were fired for repeating office gossip. They had discussed an alleged relationship between a manager and another employee with a lawyer hired to root out chatterboxes among town hall employees.
The women, now known as the "Hooksett Four", say they were told that nothing they said to the lawyer would be held against them. They were then fired. The sacked women now maintain that the ensuing publicity has given the rumour new life. "It's still out there and it's rattling like a rattlesnake," one told the US media.
Mr Long said: "A US company has banned its workers from gossiping and four workers in New Hampshire have been sacked for gossiping but it is unlikely that a charge of 'gossiping' by itself would be enough to justify dismissal in the UK.
"What it does raise however, is the spectre of bullying and harassment which gossip can be a part of and often a contributory factor."
In the UK harassment is defined as a form of discrimination that occurs when one person engages in unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating another person's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the recipient of the harassment.
Harassment can be on grounds of the recipient's age, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment status, disability, race, ethnic or national origins, religion or belief, or where the conduct is of a sexual nature.
Bullying can be defined as repeated negative actions and practices that are unwelcome to the victim, who has difficulty defending themselves, causing them humiliation, offence and distress.
Although there is no specific bullying legislation in the UK employers could be held liable for bullying by their staff under various discrimination laws, claims for personal injury and under the Protection From Harassment Act. Employers are also under an obligation to maintain the trust and confidence of their employees.
Recent cases have highlighted the legal and financial risks for employers if they do not take steps to tackle workplace bullying. In 2006 an employee was awarded over £800,000 compensation for personal injury after
bullying by her work colleagues resulted in her suffer-ing a psychiatric breakdown. Mr Long said that employers had a duty of care to prevent bullying and harassment in the workplace and this should be enshrined in the company's policies and training. "It is vital that senior managers take allegations of bullying and harassment seriously and not dismiss the complainant simply as someone with an inordinately thin skin.
"People react to bullying and harassment differently, and gossip and banter that might be accepted as the norm on a building site or in an army barracks might be treated very differently in an office environment where the sexes are mixed and many attitudes that were prevalent years ago are simply not acceptable now," he explained.