There are 2 polar opposite outcomes of gossip in the workplace. One promotes social inclusion. These are the informal discussions regarding group norms and allowable behaviours that inform people about how to fit in. The second works to divide teams. This is the gossip that maligns and alienates people. However, the negative impact is the only one mentioned whenever I ask both staff and managers about gossip in the workplace. They reply with a grimace, say they hate it, and wish it could be stopped.
They say they’ve witnessed gossip ranging from rumours about staff who are having an affair, or who is putting on weight, or who is not ‘pulling their weight’, or who has the smell of alcohol on their breath, or complaints and grumbling about how schedules or work is assigned, or that there is about to be a re-organization with lay-offs. They realize they need to avoid gossip, but they also view it as a manager’s job to deal with the problem.
I agree. Imagine that you are visiting a restaurant’s washroom and you see that it is messy, or actually dirty. You begin to doubt how the rest of the place works – for example, how clean the kitchen and storage rooms are. That is how I view gossip in the workplace; it is the dirt you see, or hear, when things aren’t being managed properly.
To determine what the manager can do, let’s first think about some key reasons for gossip at work:
- Staff have learned the behaviour as a way to ‘fit in’. They participate because they have seen others do it inside or outside work.
- Staff feel uninformed about what is happening in the organization and go to each other to complain about it.
- Staff lack skill and a sense of safety to share their feelings or tackle their concerns openly.
- Staff wish to assert power or influence in the organization.
If left unchecked, gossip becomes the norm, part of the culture of how things work in the organization. In addition to people being hurt or demoralized, the cost of gossip in terms of lost productivity can be staggering. If in a smallish organization of 50 people, say, where the average hourly rate is $40, staff spent 15 minutes a day gossiping, the loss would be $100,000 over a year, the equivalent of close to 1-1/2 full time staff. That is a significant cost for an organization.
1. To address malicious personal gossip, there are 2 key strategies managers can use:
Define malicious gossip and establish a written policy stating that it is unacceptable.
Questions such as, “Is there malice intended by sharing this information?” and “What are the potential negative consequences for those whom the information is about?” identify the kind of gossip you want to stop.
Share the policy through the whole organization. Those instigating and participating in the gossip are not the only ones who need to be told. Other staff may be the subject of the gossip, or find it demoralizing and wish to avoid it. They will be assured that gossip won’t be condoned, leading to a boost in moral.
Give feedback to those instigating and involved in gossip, and be prepared to use progressive discipline if the behaviour continues.
If you know who it is, confront the person instigating the gossip one-on-one. Have the conversation about the effects of gossip on the organization, and emphasize that it is unacceptable. Be non-judgemental and open to the possibility that they truly might not have been aware of its impact. Regardless, having this conversation will set a level of understanding that there are consequences if the behaviour continues. Be prepared to use progressive discipline, if necessary, up to and including termination for especially egregious situations.
2. Dealing with gossip about workplace issues is harder to define and manage.
Beyond spreading the news about what’s happening with individuals or programs, it often touches on ‘uncertainty’ or “anxiety” about something that happened in the past, or that may happen in the future. It is the manager’s responsibility to keep people informed. Here are two suggestions:
Have regular informal and formal channels of communication.
Both written and spoken communication can be effective in keeping people updated about organization goings-on. This requires an ongoing commitment, but if you feel your commitment flagging, consider how you would feel if you didn’t have this information.
Promote a culture that allows people to openly raise and discuss their concerns with you personally, and at meetings if appropriate.
Your staff will ultimately learn to raise and discuss their concerns in this constructive format. And it’s better that they do this with you than speculate with others after the meeting is over.
A company’s leaders should set the path for open, honest and direct dialogue, since they influence the entire organization through their values, actions and priorities. It’s worth putting the effort into becoming a model of how this is done.
Please share your comments about the impact of gossip at work and suggestions about effective strategies to deal with it.