What happens when everybody starts talking about your married male boss having an affair with a female subordinate who seems to be getting special perks? Does the boss get called a discriminatory wanker and go down in a cloud of ill repute? Does the mistress lose her place of high esteem to join the hardworking hoi polloi?
Nay, the gossips are routed out like worms in an apple! And discarded.
That seems to be one interpretation of Wednesday's Associated Press story about four women who lost their jobs at the township office of Hooksett, N.H., after admitting to gossiping about their boss's relationship with one of their co-workers. The women told the AP they had dismissed the rumors of an affair as untrue, but apparently the admission of gossiping alone was enough to lose them their jobs. (In fact, no one has suggested that the rumor is true.) The women, who are all appealing to get their jobs back to the very town council that fired them, have taken their side of the story to the press in hopes that public pressure will make the township reconsider.
The boss -- town administrator David Jodoin -- asked the township lawyers to conduct a fact-finding mission to trace the source of the rumors. The AP quoted the fact-finding report as saying that the township administrator was upset about the gossip because he's a "happily married man with two children" who didn't want his career "tainted with false accusation." Fair enough, gossip -- true and false -- can ruin people's lives and my heart goes out to Jodoin if he feels so undone by these rumors that he's willing turn the matter into a national story. But damn, there's also a case to be made that workplace gossip is the last refuge of the powerless.
What's interesting is the gendered underbelly of the story. The Union Leader reported that Jodoin's office released an e-mail suggesting that out of the nine-member panel that voted to fire the women, the lone woman (councilor Patricia Rueppel) disagreed with the council's decision, planning to "attach a 'protest report' to the meeting minutes."
Of course it is an old cliché -- the married male boss whose relationship with a female worker seems to cross enough lines to set office tongues to wagging. Back in the last century -- when I was shrugging off the Clinton scandal as much outrage about nothing -- I would have argued that the boss's personal life is exclusively his business. The only person who really had the right to take him to task was his wife and personal friends. But then it happened in my workplace and I watched as the office descended into a caldron of resentful whispering. And I was right there -- pissed as hell but feeling powerless to do anything positive. The moment there's special treatment because the boss is making it with his employee, it's no longer a private affair but one that affects the workplace in a thousand unspoken ways. In these situations, gossip can become a way of getting through the day in an unfair world. The idea of employers firing workers for gossiping is like the police arresting citizens for jaywalking. As Chuck Douglas, a former state Supreme Court justice and congressman, told the Union Leader: If talking about what you see and hear in the workplace is a basis for termination, "most Americans would be out of work by the end of the week."