Heard It Through the Grapevine? You're Not Alone

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 24, 2007
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Gossip plays a prominent role in the nature of work, according to a Workplace Index Survey (WIS) on the formal and informal channels used to spread news at work. And knowing how the pipeline works can be instructive for employers trying to figure out how to communicate more effectively with employees.

“The way news travels at work—both formally and informally—is fascinating to watch,” said Chris Congdon, manager of corporate marketing for Steelcase, an office furniture design company that commissioned the phone survey by Opinion Research Corp.

Nearly two-thirds of office workers say people in their organization gossip about company news. And while only 10 percent say the office grapevine is always right, a total of 66 percent have found it’s usually or sometimes accurate, according to the first in a three-part WIS on the Nature of Work in 2007.

There’s a dark side to gossip that can be destructive, but other types—talk of reorganization or an in-house job opening, for example—often is labeled gossip “because it hasn’t come from an authoritative source,” Congdon told SHRM Online.

“Every workplace has the person or persons who know the scoop,” she said in a press release. “At Steelcase we call those people ‘hubs,’ and others that have the ability to grant access to people or information in the office—these are gatekeepers.”

There are people, at any level, that others in their organization always go to to get information, according to 61 percent of the white-collar workers surveyed.

“Knowing who these people are and how information flows within an organization grants great insight for management and can be leveraged for increased productivity through space planning,” Congdon said.

Today’s so-called “water cooler” conversations, for example, are more likely to take place in the kitchen or break room (36 percent) or at a co-worker’s desk, workstation or office (33 percent).

Only 10 percent of respondents said they send or receive gossip through e-mail or instant messages, and a mere 1 percent head to the water cooler for more than water.

Off-the-record conversations with a supervisor are the first source for news for 31 percent of white-collar workers at organizations without a consistent method of communicating news, followed by office gossip (28 percent) and overhearing a conversation (7 percent).

“From a leadership perspective, it’s an incredibly helpful tool to understand how information flows within your organization,” Congdon told SHRM Online.

The global office environments manufacturer adheres to the philosophy that the physical environment’s design can impact productivity if some of these factors are considered.

While Congdon doesn’t think it’s possible to manage gossip—likening it to marrying somebody with the idea of changing him or her—organizations that are successful at change management have a strong, broad system of communication “to let people know what’s happening,” she said.

Reconsidering how the office space is configured from a macro level can help leaders strengthen their organization, she suggested. One way to do that is by looking at the organization’s social networks.

“Look for gatekeepers who can link up two different parts of the organization, or keep them isolated if they’re in a negative mode, and design space accordingly. Create spaces that create informal interaction” so people communicate more effectively with each other, she said.

Telegraph, Telephone, Tell Tom

Age seems to play a part in how readily a worker who has inside information is likely to spread the word, the survey found.

Only 9 percent of workers ages 18 to 24 who know office news before it’s released always keep the news to themselves, the survey found. Among other age groups, 19 percent of workers ages 25 to 34 always keep their lips zipped; 34 percent of workers 35 to 44 always do so; 39 percent of workers ages 45 to 54 always keep quiet; and 48 percent of workers ages 55 to 64 always do so.

It’s not that the younger workers lack discretion, but that they have a different perspective about how information flows and do not see the need to keep quiet out of respect for authority figures, Congdon said.

“The baby boomer generation,” despite its history of anti-establishmentism and government protests, “and the generation before it tend to have a lot more respect for the hierarchy and tend to be much more concerned about authority and respect of the authority figures,” Congdon told SHRM Online.

Generations X and Y have no qualms about checking the veracity of a rumor with senior leaders, for example. They’ve come of age when information is shared immediately through instant messages and blogging, she noted.

“They’ve been raised by parents who’ve told them you can do anything you want to do,” vs. the parents of boomers who treated their children with the idea that they “should be seen and not heard,” she said.

“Their expectation of how information flows is very different.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org

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