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How to handle workplace gossip

Posted by CommunityTeam in Human Resources on May 6, 2009 12:37:00 PM
By Reed Richardson

"Have you heard the latest?" Every day, this phrase or one similar to it, can be found in nearly every workplace, whether it's written in the subject line of a discreet intra-office email or spoken in hushed tones across the water cooler or behind cubicle walls. What follows this conspiratorial come-on is more often than not unverified, unsubstantiated, and occasionally unseemly information, the type of office chatter that can appear, on its face, as harmless speculation or good-natured ribbing but that, if left unchecked, could ruin someone's career or wreck someone's business. Smart business owners, in other words, should recognize that office gossip and workplace rumors can have a profound effect on their bottom line and that not having a strategy to handle them could be a recipe for disaster.

"You're never going to erase gossip altogether," acknowledges executive coach Peggy Klaus. "Still, I really counsel people and businesses to stay away from it as much as possible because it's an energy-suck, a time-waster, and it's very debilitating for morale." A recent Randstad survey of more than 1,500 U.S. employees found that most employees recognize the pernicious effect of gossip. In that survey, three out of five adult workers listed gossip as their top workplace pet peeve. But if so many of us view gossip as annoying, unwelcome behavior, why then did the survey also find that only 8 percent of workers complained to their boss or supervisor about it?

 

A natural tendency
"It's just human nature," explains Klaus. "We are social, and gossiping is seen as a way to build relationships and alliances with people. It also lets you feel like you are in the know and more in control." And she points out that this tendency for employees to secretly speculate about who's up and who's down or what a company's future holds is exacerbated during turbulent economic times. "Anxieties are at an all-time high right now," she notes. "And the recession is like a giant Petri dish for gossip."

Coupling this economic uncertainty with a small business can make for even more trouble, says human resources trainer Hunter Lott. "Think about the potential effect that one or two gossips in an office of 20 can have versus an office of 200," he says. "Because of that, it's more imperative for small companies to stay on top of office gossip and rumors."

 

 


Gossip may be at least somewhat true
It can be a challenge to do that, however, since office gossip often begins as a slight embellishment of the truth. In fact, social scientists Nicholas DiFonzo and Prashnat Borida, authors of the book Rumor Psychology, found during their research that "most workplace rumors are 95 percent accurate." Matt Shollenberger, a licensed counselor from West Chester, Pennsylvania, who has worked with several victims of workplace gossip, agrees. "If the gossip is something that's believable, it's harder to defeat," Shollenberger says. "Whereas outrageous rumors are usually able to be squashed very quickly."

Still, business owners ignore outrageous rumors at their peril, he notes, as those have the greatest potential for harm. Shollenberger says he has counseled several clients whose careers unraveled because they could not shake nasty personal rumors about themselves, many of which put them in a kind of a Catch-22. "Despite denying all the gossip and swearing a rumor isn't true, co-workers and supervisors can still remain suspicious of a gossip victim because, well, what else are they going to say in their defense?" Shollenberger notes. "And if an incendiary rumor about an employee goes unaddressed by HR or management for too long, the victim can start to feel isolated and betrayed, like everyone knows the gossip." That kind of poisoned work climate-where petty office politics outranks productivity-can soon lead even well meaning companies astray and makes a company ripe for a lawsuit.

 

 


Make your values clear
To combat an out-of-control gossip situation, business coach Klaus counsels her business clients to first give a "state of the union" speech. "You come out and reiterate your company's culture and values and be very clear about what will and won't be tolerated," she says. In addition, she recommends that small business owners then follow up by providing their employees with safe, non-judgmental ways of dealing with serious, hurtful rumors, like a confidential suggestion box, an open door policy, or, in cases that might directly involve the boss or business owner, third-party mediation. "The more transparent the process and the more feedback you give, the better," Klaus says.

 


Human resources consultant Lott notes that, to be effective, any anti-gossip effort must not play favorites. "What I tell bosses now, especially those in small businesses, is that there is a performance aspect to every job and there is a behavior aspect to every job," he explains. "They are separate, but equally important elements." If this clearly becomes a company's standard, Lott says it becomes much easier to discipline that obnoxious salesman whose customers love him but whose rumor-mongering is detrimental to the office atmosphere. "It's great to have a behavior policy as a benchmark," he adds, "but it doesn't have to be an official policy as long as there are clear, commonsense consequences to bad behavior."

 

 

A teaching opportunity
To prevent minor office rumors from spiraling out of control (and to save small business owners from constantly refereeing petty squabbles), it's also a good idea to teach employees how to address or deflect gossip on their own. The number-one way to do this, most experts agree, is confrontation-+diplomatic+ confrontation. "Gossips typically don't like being confronted," says licensed counseler Shollenberger. And he adds that gossips will typically back down and think twice about doing it again if they're faced with the prospect of repeating their rumors directly to the subject or if someone else calls their bluff and suggests they take action instead of complain behind another employee's back.

 


Nevertheless, confrontation, while good in theory, rarely occurs in practice. The Randstad survey of workplace pet peeves found that just barely over one-third-34 percent-of workers were willing to express their displeasure directly to the gossiper. This unwillingness to confront a workplace gossip often arises from two distinct worries.

 


The first of these, Klaus acknowledges, is the very real fear of being ostracized, something she says she has experienced first-hand. "I was teaching at a graduate program in England and a colleague kept trying to get me to provide him with some personal information about someone else," she explains. When Klaus wouldn't comply, she says she quickly became persona non grata among most of the staff and, for a couple of weeks, no one would really talk to her. "You're suddenly seen as a self-righteous prig or goody two-shoes and you're not one of the cool kids anymore," she explains. "So, it's not surprising that when it comes to confronting or rebuking a gossip, we often don't do it."

 

 

The right way to confront
The other main obstacle to directly addressing a nasty office rumor revolves around the fear of instigating an ugly shouting match at work. But confrontation, Shollenberger explains, doesn't have to turn into a conflagration. "So many clients, when they come to me, don't know how to diplomatically confront someone," Shollenberger acknowledges. "I teach confrontation with a small ‘c.'"

To do this, he counsels against using the word "you" when addressing a potentially gossiping co-worker. "That word puts people on the defensive right away," he says, heightening the chances of a conversation escalating to something unprofessional. In addition, he recommends following up with sets of what he calls "facts/feelings." "For example, you might say ‘I've heard a nasty joke is being told behind my back about my recent absence from work and that makes me feel angry and hurt." This strategy, Shollenberger explains, gives the gossiper the benefit of the doubt and prevents minor misunderstandings from erupting, while, at the same time, making clear the repercussions of the rumor and the fact that it won't go unanswered.

In the end, perhaps the best way to reduce gossip and workplace rumors is to preempt them from happening in the first place. "When employees don't know what's going on or why certain decisions are being made, that's when gossip and rumors start up," says Lott. "So if a business wants to prevent gossip and rumors, a simple solution is to talk with employees as much as possible to fill that communication gap instead." After all, gossip doesn't tend to go very far around the office if the answer to "Have you heard the latest?" is always "Yes, I have."

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