Gossip can be good, bad, and ugly, depending on the form it takes. The way you handle it determines whether or not it will be harmful to your company.
What is gossip?
One dictionary defines gossip as “information about the behavior and personal lives of other people.”
While we’re talking about gossip, we probably want to include rumors as well. Rumors are defined as “information or a story that is passed from person to person but has not been proven to be true.”
Seems that at times they’re basically one and the same!
Why does gossip take root in the workplace?
Why does gossip take hold and run rampant in an organization?
We can start with the fact that we are social creatures with curious minds. We are a society built on information and we like to be in the know. And knowledge is power
Employees may gossip or spread rumors when information itself is not out in the open or shared in abundance.
What is the cost of workplace gossip?
As leaders and managers in our organizations, we must ask ourselves what gossip and rumors cost the business, how we contribute to this culture, and what we can do to improve it.
To look at the cost of gossip for a business, I have an example from my own company:
At one of our manufacturing clients, a rumor spread that a number of our temporary employees had organized to create a side business making a drug-based concoction. The rumor took on a life of its own, causing disruption and distraction.
Our client asked that all of our temporary employees be pulled from the job and drug tested. They were, and their tests were all negative, and the rumor was proved false.
Our client returned them to the job and paid our employees for their lost wages—but, unfortunately, the client lost a couple days of productivity as a result. All because someone started a rumor!
And this doesn’t even take into account how demoralizing this was for the employees on the team who were falsely accused, and the impact this has had on that team going forward.
What can we do about the impact of workplace gossip?
How can we manage the impacts of workplace gossip on our organizations?
You can’t forbid employees from discussing things with each other. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recognizes employees’ rights to talk together about their working conditions, which is a protected concerted activity.
So, for example, if employees are gossiping about how much a certain employee is paid, or that a male supervisor seems to show undue favoritism to a certain female employee, this could be their right to discuss their working conditions.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t have a positive workplace where information is shared appropriately, rumors are dispelled, and gossip is contained.
Tips for dealing with gossip at work:
Have a company value statement about communication, and walk the talk:
Tell your employees what is acceptable and appropriate information sharing and model that yourself.
Let them know that you won’t tolerate the spread of malicious or harmful gossip, and take immediate action when that happens.
Don’t seek out gossip as a means of finding out for yourself what’s happening in the organization:
If you do that, you send the message that gossipers have real value as information sharers.
Provide access to information and share it as openly as you can:
Remember that saying: when in doubt, make it up. People, especially in these uncertain times, want to know information about the company, its finances, their jobs, their departments, coworkers, sales, strategies, plans, etc.
If the information doesn’t flow their way, they’ll seek it out anyway they can. Information is passed from person to person, and soon rumors are started. Facts dispel rumors, so real information sharing helps to end their spread.
Can workplace gossip have a positive purpose?
Gossip can be the means for employees to build connections between themselves, to feel like they are part of the team, and to feel like they have value.
It may be all built on negativity, and at the expense of someone else, but nevertheless, it can be stimulating and exciting, and increase the sense of belonging for those who are participating.
A company can help mitigate this by providing positive means for employees to build connections and strong teams. There are many team building exercises you can utilize, company social events, and even casual fun events that pull the group together.
Managers need to be accessible:
As a leader in your organization, you must be accessible.
All of us like to say we have an “open door” policy, but not every employee is comfortable popping into the boss’s office and taking a chair to chat a bit.
Make a conscious effort to be accessible to everyone in the organization. Become a trusted listener, not just a one-way information source.
Dispelling rumors and quelling gossip is a lot easier to do when employees feel free to ask for clarification or facts from someone who knows what’s going on.
I shop at a business owned by a Rotarian, and he has Rotary’s Four-Way Test prominently displayed for all of his customers and employees to see. It’s clear he holds himself, his employees, and his business accountable to it:
- Is it the truth?
- Is it fair to all concerned?
- Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
- Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
If we all applied this test in our businesses, and as employees, we’d go a long way toward stopping gossip in its tracks!