GOSSIP in the workplace

By Barbara J. Bowes

How many times have you been confronted by the interpersonal staff conflict that arose because of employee gossip? My bet is that this issue is a lot more common that you would like to see and it is certainly hard to deal with. In fact, some communication specialists suggest that 60 per cent of general conversations consist of gossip with most of the comments being judgmental about someone who isn’t present at the time. 

Obviously, gossip has been around forever and is especially rampant when the topic is about someone’s personal or private affairs. At the same time, society has taught us that it’s wrong to gossip yet everyone does it. So why do people do it? Not only that, just what can employers do about gossip that is harmful to staff and perhaps even to the business? 

People mostly engage in gossip because it creates a form of social bonding and relationship building. It creates shared values and develops a sense of trust between people. Gossip also provides some understanding and insight into how people think and allows listeners to learn what’s important to them. However, at the same time, some people engage in gossip that is deliberately malicious because they want to harm someone and/or elevate their personal status in the eyes of other colleagues. This malicious gossip will cause problems. It will hurt people and will disrupt any teambuilding that has been created. Gossip can also cause miscommunication especially when it relates to corporate goals and objectives. 

One of the key challenges about gossip in general is that listeners are forced to weigh the information to determine what is true or untrue. A second key challenge and perhaps the most important to management is that with today’s social media, gossip travels at lightning speed. With this in mind, leaders need to realize that gossip can have a large impact on the organization and so it cannot simply be written off as unimportant. Failing to deal with gossip can have major consequences both short term and long term. 

So, just what does gossip look like? What are the specific behaviours to watch for? Gossip in the workplace usually consists of a range of behaviours. This could include disparaging remarks and personal criticism right up to a malicious attack on a colleague that borders on workplace violence. Gossip can also consist of rumours about the financial security of the employer, rumours about major changes being contemplated and/or concerns regarding any change of leadership. All it all, gossip has multiple faces, is hard to deal with and most often causes a general sense of insecurity. 

What can leaders do about this? There are two key strategies that leaders should consider. First, be proactive and deal with employee gossip as soon as you can. Secondly, if there are any changes being made at the organizational level, get ahead of gossip and organize a communication strategy that is effective and timely with its messages. 

Prior to speaking to a person about gossip, double check your human resource policies. Is gossip included in your respectful workplace policies? What does it say about gossip and how to handle it? Is there an investigative process that should be followed so that individual rights are respected? Who is the best person to look into the challenges being experienced? In smaller organizations, this person would be the lead manager but in serious cases, consideration should be given to an external workplace investigator. 

When investigating the gossip issue, be sure to get specific facts such as date, time, who was involved in the conversation and specifically what was said. Look for corroboration of your information. Take time to examine the damage done by the gossip/rumours as this will assist you to determine a potential path for discipline. 

Ask multiple questions to determine if the gossip statement(s) served to attack, belittle or criticize someone’s integrity. Determine the impact on interpersonal, group and departmental relationships and assess the damage caused by this action. Determine if the gossip has the potential of creating negative emotional energy that will drive down organizational morale, increase negativity and cause interpersonal conflict. Ask if someone’s reputation is being harmed? What about your organization’s reputation? Is it being harmed or damaged in some way? When you have enough information, confront the individual with the facts and determine next steps with respect to progressive discipline. 

However, let’s back up. There are some earlier steps that need to be taken. First, the best practice for small business owners is to include respect in the workplace training in their new employee orientation program. Be this a group and/or one-on-one, managers must share and discuss at the very least, the code of conduct and the respect in the workplace policy. Make the employee aware of expectations of their own behavior and how to make a complaint should something happen to them. Reinforce that each individual has a personal responsibility to avoid gossip. They also need to fully understand that engaging in malicious gossip is an ethical issue and is inappropriate in the workplace. 

More importantly in today’s era of social media, it is important to remind employees that social media and emails are just another form of conversation. Advise them not to circulate statements they would never say in face to face. Remind them as well that once their communication has been sent, friends will also circulate it. The result is that they will lose control but the message will still be attributed to them. 

Most people would agree that gossip has been around forever, but in today’s world, gossip can move forward with lightning speed and can do damage within minutes. So, take notice and deal with negative gossip as soon as it arises, you will be better for it.  

 Barbara J. Bowes, FCPHR, CMC, CCP, M.Ed., is president of Legacy Bowes Group, the author of eight books, a radio personality, a speaker, an executive coach and a workshop leader. Additionally, she is chairwoman for the Manitoba Women’s Advisory Council. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com.