Let’s give them something to talk about isn’t the ideal goal when it comes to office gossip, but often companies unwittingly do exactly that, creating a workplace culture where gossip is rampant.
“Excessive gossip can negatively affect productivity, erode trust, and generally create an unhealthy work environment,” says Art Glover, Associate Director of Human Resources at Douglas County Libraries in Castle Rock, Colorado “Rumors and gossip that can be interpreted as harassment can be a liability.”
Not all gossip is bad. After all the grapevine can be an ideal way for higher ups to get a message out that they aren’t officially allowed to make. Nor is it possible to eradicate all gossip. But if its spreads like wildfire and hurts the office environment turning a blind eye can be the worst thing a company does. “You should always expect some level of gossip. It’s the way people bond, but where it becomes dangerous is sharing negative stories with the intention to harm or to malign,” says May Abbajay, president and co-founder of Careerstone Group, the leadership development consulting firm. “In that negative climate gossip is taken as truth and people discount the official version of things in favor of the gossip.”
While gossiping is human nature, particularly if there is a scandal going on in the office, Susan Heathfield, the guide to human resources for About.com, says if the gossip is widespread its solely the fault of the company because it isn’t supplying employees with enough information to prevent them from spending their time gossiping about other things. One way to combat that, says Heathfield, is for the company to keep the lines of communications open and share as much information as possible as often as they can. “If employees don’t know what’s going on they don’t feel like part of the in crowd and when they don’t have the business to talk about they talk about each other,” says Heathfield.
In addition to sharing with employees, companies can damper gossip if the managers agree not to participate in any of it. After all some of the worst gossiper are the managers and leaders themselves. “When you hear gossip as a manager or organizational leader you have to dig down to find out what exactly happened…and request people don’t repeat things,” says Abbajay. Managers can also bring the team together and put the gossip out there in front of the staff so it can be addressed, she says.
Monitoring the office environment can also go a long way in stopping gossip before it gets out of control. According Glover, employers have to constantly stay on top of the work environment and could do that by obtaining regular employee feedback through opinion surveys, exits interviews and suggestion programs. “Educate employees about the potentially negative ramifications of gossip, and be clear about what is not tolerated,” says Glover. “A general statement in your employee handbook about staff expectations regarding how employees treat one another should be strongly considered.”
When it comes to instituting a no gossip policy there are two schools of thought. Opponents of having something official on the books argue it’s hard to define what constitutes gossip and having an official policy can come off as a bit big brother to employees, who after all are adults. “A policy is very tricky since defining gossip is hard and telling employees they can’t talk about things might violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA),” says Phyllis G. Hartman, president at PGHR Consulting, the Pittsburgh staffing company. “The NLRA protects communication between employees about pay, benefits, and working conditions. If the policy is too broad it could cross the line.”
ButSheila Birnbach, president and chief executive of Birnbach Success Solutions, the Bethesda Maryland, human resources consulting company, argues these no gossip policies can work, granted it’s enforced.
So what should you include in a no gossip policy if that’s the road your company wants to do down? According to Birnbach, it should include a clear definition of what is gossip, a statement from the company expressing its commitment to stamping out gossip and the disciplinary action that will happen to repeat offenders. “Having the policy lets employees know what the intent of management is,” says Birnbach. “It’s your job to ensure a work environment where everyone can thrive and gossip undermines that.”