Gossip is all around us. If you watch American television, it seems that half of the popular shows are founded on the principle of gossip. TMZ is probably the biggest offender, but many other shows are also gossip-fueled. As humorist Erma Bombeck said, “Some say our national pastime is baseball. Not me. It’s gossip.” It should be no surprise then that gossip in the workplace is so prevalent.
In reality, office gossip has been around as long as offices have been around. The “water cooler” is code for informal network employees use to collect and pass along news to one other. Also known as “the grapevine”, the gossip mill can be both effective in transmitting news and also destructive and wasteful. What is gossip? The dictionary defines it as idle chatter about the affairs of others. It’s also a way that rumors and untruths get spread around. It can be a harmless pastime, or it can be malicious. So how do you deal with it on the job?
There is an old saying that nature abhors a vacuum. Communication, or the lack thereof, can create a vacuum, and if management is not filling that communication vacuum then someone else will. So the first step in stopping gossip, especially about the company, is to communicate. Authors Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda wrote in their book Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance, “Rumors are hearsay; they are told, believed, and passed on not because of the weight of evidence but because of the expectations by tellers that they are true in the first place.”
If you want to stop rumors from starting, then let people know what is going on! It will not stop them from talking, of course, but at least they’ll be talking about what is true. Obviously, there are situations that cannot be talked about publicly. Financial information, private company plans, or personal staff situations are all confidential. Sometimes you have to tell people that you can’t tell them anything until the appropriate time.
All organizations have informal networks, which often serve as the “grapevines” that disseminate gossip and rumors. In most situations, these informal networks have leaders who are the primary sources of misinformation. Identify these leaders, if you don’t already know who they are, and talk to them directly. In some situations, you can actually turn them to your advantage by having them disseminate the information you want to get out.
People are always going to talk. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “If an American was condemned to confine his activity to his own affairs, he would be robbed of one half of his existence.” You need to recognize that there is a qualitative difference between idle chatter and malicious rumor. The latter can be a form of bullying and/or harassment. Those are issues that need to be rooted out and eliminated by investigating and dealing with the propagators. Discipline may be merited. Doing so may actually get the grapevine working in your favor since you are making it clear that that sort of behavior is unacceptable and will not be allowed.
One of the major steps in dealing with gossip is setting the standard. Managers and supervisors should be trained about not participating in any gossip sessions. If someone starts to talk to them about gossip or rumors, they should be taught how to respond by asking questions to determine the specifics and addressing the issues as best they can. They should also try to be aware of their own actions. It’s easy to get caught up in the latest news, but participating sets the wrong example. Any time there is going to be a major change of personnel, company restructuring, etc. managers and supervisors need to be given advice on how to address any specific rumors they may hear. Prepare them ahead of time so they will not be caught off guard.
Although gossip can spread like wildfire, trying to douse it all at one time is not an effective way of fighting it. Sending out a broad memo to the entire company that says rumors must stop and gossip is not allowed is akin to using gasoline to douse a fire in the woods. Good firefighting requires a long-term plan and coordination. The best approach is to discourage rumors from the get-go by having specific policies in the Employee Handbook explaining that gossip has a negative effect on the workplace, and establishing a culture that promotes clear communication and cooperation. The second best plan is to handle it at the source and take away the fuel. Handle it at the micro-level, and you will be more successful in eliminating it.
Remember, eliminating gossip and rumor is like trying to unhear a bell. You can’t-all you can do is dampen the tones.