By JULIE MIDDLETON
An Auckland legal secretary, Bronwyn Sheerin, lost her job because she couldn't keep her mouth shut.
At the Shortland St chambers of law firm Jamieson Castles, she started a rumour late last year that partner Tony Tapsell was having an affair with another secretary.
Tapsell offered Sheerin his partner's phone number in an attempt to stem the flow, but she was unmoved.
Sheerin continued to spread the gossip herself and in email messages, despite the oral and written warnings that followed over the next few months.
Annoyed and out of patience, the company finally sacked Sheerin. The Employment Relations Authority rejected her claim of unjustifiable dismissal in March.
But here's the clincher, from adjudicator Dzintra King: "Even if there had been an affair - and I am satisfied there was not - her behaviour would have been inexcusable and totally unacceptable."
Translation: It doesn't matter whether the gossip you spread is accurate or not - truth is less important than conduct in a workplace setting. Persist in spreading something detrimental to company or colleague and risk the consequences.
That gossip should lead to a court case is extraordinary, Wellington lawyer Andrew Scott-Howman says, and he thinks it may be the first such case in New Zealand.
And this precedent gives bosses encouragement to clamp down on those who don't know the fine line between fluffy chat about, say, who's going where on holiday and derogatory, unsubstantiated rumours harmful to individuals and the business.
It appears that employers should be concerned. A recently released Australian study of 4500 people found that 38 per cent considered workplace gossip to be out of control.
Fifty per cent of those surveyed claimed to have been victims of false workplace gossip. Worse, 12 per cent of women said they had left their job as a result.
Of top-tier staff - CEOs and the like - 67 per cent reported that they had been the target of an untrue rumour.
Gossip was more likely to be a problem among younger staff in communications-oriented companies: 47 per cent of workers aged 25 to 34 said gossip was negatively affecting their office, and those in advertising, sales and marketing suffered most.
However, among the over-55s, just 17 per cent thought gossip was a problem.
That's possibly because more mature workers are just that and can ignore it, says University of Waikato psychologist Michael O'Driscoll.
But untrue tittle-tattle can still taint, he says. Given that it is human nature to more readily believe the worst of others, gossip can unfairly damage a victim's credibility with others.
If the Career editor-about-town revealed that a high-profile law firm head was caught snorting cocaine in the gents' of a well-known Viaduct Harbour restaurant, your memory would leap into action trying to make names fit. (No, of course it's not true. You were wondering, though.)
But any tale pinned to someone sows a seed of doubt, says industrial psychologist Keith McGregor, as gossip usually contains enough plausibility to be believed.
"You start to look at that person in a different light. And that starts to break down any trust between yourself and that person. It breaks down the openness of communication."
And it can lead to defamation. Journalist Toni McRae took gossip columnist Felicity Ferret - of Metro magazine - to court, and won.
"Some of the best-known cases of defamation are probably, at their heart, gossip," says lawyer Scott-Howman.
And gossip transmitted by email is increasingly cropping up in employment and defamation cases.
"That's the real danger," says Scott-Howman. "That's a written record which is undeniable."
Also undeniable is that where humans gather, there is titillating gossip - it's as natural as breathing.
Politically savvy cavemen gathered information to use against potential rivals, according to a theory by Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.
Those who took no interest were cut out of the social loop and had trouble getting mates.
"There are things that helped people do well over three million years of evolution," says McAndrew.
"People who ate the right foods, people who had sex, and people who had important information about the things around them did better."
Auckland psychologist Iain McCormick says humans are problem-solving animals with a very strong desire to fill in the gaps in their understanding with facts, or if these are not available, then fiction.
"Gossip often arises when we see a snippet of something that fascinates us - two people standing close together, or a subordinate taking fluff off their manager's shoulder.
"We wonder if there is something more than we see and we have a strong desire to fill in the gaps. So the gossip begins."
Inveterate tongue-waggers are often attention-seekers and ingratiaters, he adds: "Humans typically crave attention and if we can't get this for doing something good and worthwhile, many people will get attention by doing something not so good.
"People who are bored and frustrated are often the source of gossip."
And gossip passes only to a willing audience, says McGregor. "If you want to learn about yourself, take note of the sorts of things people say to you."
A high proportion of scuttlebutt in your daily conversation with workmates might teach you a lot about yourself you don't want to know.
And once you are the recipient of potentially damaging gossip, he notes, "you're compromised ... and that can be used against you in the future".
Here are some issues to ponder:
* Tempted to pass on something potentially damaging to others? Ask these questions to work out whether you're dealing with harmless chit-chat or gossip:
What will be the consequences of its distribution? Will it offend anyone? Did your informant have an ulterior motive in spreading it? Do you want to be seen as a gossipy person?
And the ultimate test, says McGregor, is this: "Would you say it if the other party were in the room?"
* Understand yourself and what you are getting out of gossip. Are you bored and seeking a cheap thrill? Angry and wanting to get back at someone?
Those listening to you gossip are passing judgments of their own, and supervisors will see whether you indulge in it as indicative of how you contribute to office culture.
* Put yourself in other's shoes. "Think about how it feels to be the victim of gossip," says McCormick.
* To kill gossip, says McGregor, respond to a rumour with: "I must ask him/her about that," or, "You don't mind if I confirm that with her/him" and watch the result. Or ask who the source is, with the apparent intention of checking.
* If someone approaches you with gossip and you want no part of it, shut it down by being disinterested or walking away.
* If gossip has backfired on you, just shut up before you make things worse. According to the website www.unicru.com, it's better you don't tell others you've had a fright and want to start fresh. That will come across as trite.
Just promise yourself you'll stop gossiping and enlist a trusted friend outside work if you think you'll need some support.
And if you have really trashed someone, consider coming clean. "Only have this conversation if you have really changed your ways," says the site, "because if you fall off the wagon this time, no one in the office will ever trust you again."
* What if you are the victim of unfair or untrue gossip? Make a joke of it by directly saying to the perpetrators that you have heard the funniest story of the year. Repeat the gossip and laugh it off - cast-iron confidence here does help. "Defensiveness fuels gossip," says McCormick, "and open humour defeats it."
* Report to your manager and your company's HR department incidents which could do serious career damage or which verge on harassment. Check your company's harassment policy and, if necessary, get a legal opinion on the strength of your case.
* Never put up with malicious gossip, says McCormick. "It will harm all concerned."
By JULIE MIDDLETON