Employees Talk – Managing Workplace Gossip

Employee talk is good. In fact, it is one of the main ways that workers get to know each other and become comfortable and trusting. Sharing information starts to build friendships and studies show that employees are more productive when they work with people they like. But what about when employees get so comfortable that they start to gossip with their work friends about others in the workplace? Things can take a downward and spiraling turn quickly.

When gossip turns malicious and unflattering it can contribute to conflict and according to a UK study, about a sixth of employees say negative gossip decreases morale and increases cynicism while affecting their production. The study also found that job-related gossip was of more concern over non-job related. Without early detection and intervention by leadership, gossip can take a life of its own that turns toxic and send your best employees running for cover.

The term gossip is often associated with comments that are negative and unconfirmed about someone who is not present in the conversation. It can also include spreading confidential information entrusted with the gossiper. The key determinant is whether the individual spreading the gossip or rumors would make those comments in the targeted person’s presence.

Organizational leaders can spearhead the way for decreasing negative gossip. Chances are leaders will not eliminate gossip completely in the workplace. Almost everyone gossips at some point regardless of how hard they try to steer clear. However, bringing attention to its effects and ways to combat could possibly curb the behavior and lower the organizational impact.

What’s a leader to do?

Start with yourself – make sure you model a behavior of “no gossip.” Leaders are entrusted with employee personal life information as well as workplace performance and personnel data. When employees began to feel their personal information is “leaking” into the workplace, serious problems can arise including legal action against the organization.

Advocate and permeate a “No Gossip” culture both formally and informally in your actions.
  • Include “no gossip” in your organizational values statement where it is front and center.
  • Be proactive at heading off potential job-related news before rumors start from unreliable sources who fill in the missing pieces, –sometimes incorrectly.
  • Consider putting up the “No Gossip” posters in high traffic internal employee areas as a reminder to think before engaging. (Note: Some organizations have put in place a “No Gossip Policy,” to be signed by employees. Keep in mind, however, these policies can be difficult to enforce based on Department of Labor standards and concerns.)
  • Provide anti-gossip training for the entire workforce so there are no questions to its importance. Some employers are seeing the benefits based on employee feedback. During the training make sure employees are clear on how you define gossip. Give statistics on how gossip affects workplace morale and production. Include tips on how employees can self-manage their own contribution to gossip and how to avoid other gossipers. Make sure they understand the legal implications as well. The training could be a brown-bag lunch to last 60-90 minutes.
  • Include anti-gossip discussion in the onboarding process for new employees
  • Be willing to address the casual chatter. – Keep a close ear to the concerns of your team and be proactive at the smallest sense of a gossip problem. If you hear something that sounds like gossip, say something, particularly when the gossip is job-related.The workplace will encompass a variety of personalities and behaviors. Gossip can be intentional or unintentional and can be considered harmless by the perpetrator. A person who is an open book may not understand how some people hold personal information so closely. Sometimes all it takes is a conversation with a gossiper to quickly stop the behavior. However, be willing to be consistent in taking more stringent action for repeat offenders.

Keep in mind, advocating a no gossip culture is not to discourage employees from addressing issues that include unacceptable individual behavior contrary to the organization’s values. However, you do want to create a culture in which it is safe to have candid discussions to stop the undesired conduct immediately.

  • It still holds true, to keep peace in the workplace, try to stay away from discussions of politics, sex, and religion. In today’s climate, studies are showing that political discussions have increased workplace stress. According to Wayne Hochwarter, Professor of Organization Behavior at Florida State University, at least 20 percent of employees surveyed in his study say they’ve lost friendships, had to avoid coworkers and have gotten distracted because of divisive political discussions. Distraction is costly and worth paying attention.
  • Lastly, I leave you with the following acronym to give you something to THINK about. This is a poster designed for K-6 to prevent gossip in the classroom. It seems quite fitting for the workplace and the poster can be purchased here.

Want to make a personal pledge to leave gossip behind?

Consider the 30-day gossip diet plan outlined by Kathi Elster & Katherine Crowley, authors of “Mean Girls At Work.” See video here.

Note: A personal thanks to clients who provided input to this article.

Sharon Harrington. She assists organizations in navigating conflict by helping to build skills that embrace prevention measures and create empowering environments that support self-mediation. She is a learning professional who has spent over 25 years tackling tough issues surrounding charges of unfair treatment in the workplace that reach the attention EEOC.