New Brunswick·WORLD OF WORK

Suppressing workplace gossip, despite its benefits

Every workplace has some gossip, but the level of gossip has to be monitored and dealt with by good managers.

Gossip isn't all bad, but good leaders need to shut it down

The rumour about Alexis spread like wildfire.

Her meeting with the big boss did not go well, she embarrassed herself and her exciting new project was turned down in record time.

She was supposedly ill prepared for the meeting, didn't know her stuff and tried to bluff her way through. Or so the story goes. Now she's the talk of the entire company.

Sadly, the gossip circulating about Alexis is not good for her, her professional reputation or potentially her career progression at least in the short term.

But the juicy details making the rounds of how she was taken to task may well benefit others in several ways.

Gossip flourishes in offices when decision-making is secretive or unclear, or employees are not kept in the loop. (Free Morgue)
Workplace gossip flourishes when colleagues are friendly and trust each other.

The upside of close friendships on the job has been well researched and shown to strengthen employee engagement.

The downside is friends are willing to confide their views and opinions about issues and other colleagues, sometimes in unflattering ways.

Workplaces are fertile ground for the insidious and toxic effect that rampant gossip can have when decision-making is secretive or unclear, where cliques have formed because people feel powerless and not heard, or when employees are not kept in the loop.

The ill effects are well documented.  Gossip is hard on teams, wastes lots of valuable time and critically hurts morale.

It can be hurtful, disrespectful and can create a culture of dread and apprehension.

In its extreme, it forms part of bullying and harassment behaviour. Yet, surprisingly, it can be beneficial.

Having heard the news, Alexis's colleagues may be especially nice to her or offer support.

In addition, colleagues will now know that being ill prepared and attempting to bluff is extremely ill-advised and that insight can be beneficial to co-workers.

Employees often learn through the grapevine the types of behaviour that are appropriate and inappropriate.

In research published in a 2012 Personality and Social Psychology article, the findings showed that we are less likely to misbehave or behave inappropriately when we are conscious that others will talk about us.

We learn from gossip and the threat of gossip potentially shapes our conduct.

Despite the tangential benefits, most if not all organisations condemn gossip, and so they should.

However, it is widely accepted that eradicating gossip from your workplace is impossible, so here's how to suppress it. 

  • Managers and supervisors should be very attentive to what is being said and by whom. A rampant grapevine signals people are not in the loop. When employees are not given ongoing updates and timely explanations they look to make sense of what's happening by making things up, exaggerating based on their perceptions as opposed to facts, and spreading it around. It is what human beings do when they feel disconnected.
  • Grand pronouncements banning gossip by leaders are futile. Operating with greater transparency, pushing decision making throughout the organisation and giving lots of opportunities for employees to be heard (most critically by their supervisors on a daily basis) are powerful antidotes to harmful gossip.
  • Managers and supervisors cannot engage in misspeaking or speculating about others with their staff or anyone else. Leading by example is critical.
  • The literature on workplace gossip speaks of "workplace terrorism" as those who deliberately harass by maliciously spreading falsehoods, slander or put down others for their professional gain. Identifying and rooting out these poisonous behaviours is a must. Confronting the conduct and insisting on it stopping or else, is what conscientious leaders do.

The adage is organisations get the rumour mill they deserve.

Leaders who operate with optimal transparency, who consistently communicate with intent and who ensure employees can safely voice their concerns have a level of gossip which is present but not toxic or harmful.

The very passive cop-out "my door is always open" usually isn't enough. Effective leaders actively work at communication everyday.

And for those who work with a gossipy colleague, try this: When you are approached with "Did you hear what happened to Alexis?" Simply say "No I didn't, let's go talk to Alexis together and find out from her." 

It signals to the gossiper you are not interested in third party scuttlebutt and most often shuts them down, hopefully permanently, at least with you. Remember, those who gossip to you probably gossip about you.


Pierre Battah

Human resource management consultant

Pierre Battah is Information Morning's Workplace Specialist. Battah & Associates is a management consulting firm specializing in Human Resource Management.