Gossips in the workplace may need to face disciplinary action, as SHRM Knowledge Advisor Barbara Holland wrote in the most recent issue of HR Magazine. Managers can and should address this toxic behavior before it rises to the level of requiring formal disciplinary action.
Gossips typically initiate unfounded rumors; rumormongers perpetuate them, even if they lack any foundation of truth or could potentially damage others' reputations or hurt their feelings. These behavioral shortfalls occur around us all the time to differing degrees, and few things in the workplace do more to damage employee morale and trust than corporate "grapevining" that is allowed to go unaddressed. Rumors act like the proverbial worm in the apple, slowly eating away the goodwill and respect that creates camaraderie and trust.
Address Rumors Openly and Transparently
"When a workplace begins to resemble a middle school cafeteria, rampant with rumors and gossip, it can quickly morph into an unhealthy toxic environment that perpetuates fear and humiliation," said Adam Rosenthal, an employment law partner at Shepard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton in San Diego. Workplace bullying has many of the same effects, and as an employer, you have to be cautious not to let rumors and gossip create a potentially hostile work environment.
"Peer harassment and bullying complaints can become a significant liability if left unchecked. In addition to the serious morale issues, sensible employers should want to avoid being dragged into court to defend against a 'known or should have known' allegation in response to an employee's hostile work environment claim," Rosenthal said.
Asking the employee who is the subject of a rumor (in the example below, we'll call him Pete) whom he suspects originated the rumor is usually not the best approach. Blaming or finger-pointing to find the source of the rumor does not get to the heart of the issue. What is important, however, is how you address the situation with your team. Consider the following dialogue:
"Everyone, I've asked Pete to join me in this meeting because a rumor has developed about his personal life. We don't know who originated the rumor, and if any one of you would like to speak with me in private after this meeting about anyone's involvement in starting or perpetuating the rumor, I'd be happy to hear what you have to say.
"For now, though, I want you all to know how hurtful this is. We're a team, and anyone who could raise issues like this against one member of the team raises them against us all. And I personally would be very offended and hurt if anyone started or continued a rumor about my personal life that had little or nothing to do with my performance at work.
"Whether there's any truth to this rumor is not the issue; it's simply none of our business. This is about respect—respect for each other as individuals and respect for our team.
"However, let me be very clear: I expect that no one will engage in this type of character assassination or public shaming exercise ever again. I also expect that everyone in our department will stop others from spreading rumors of a personal nature. In short, if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all. Do I have your agreement and commitment on that going forward? [Wait for everyone to say yes.]
"Pete, on behalf of the entire team, I'm very sorry for anything that was said that might have hurt or offended you. We'll commit to you to stopping these types of behaviors in their tracks in the future. Again, my apologies."
The best course of action in dealing with rumors that attack someone's character, personal challenges or other areas of vulnerability will always be to address the rumor openly with the group in front of the intended victim and apologize for the problem that was created by someone's meanness or lack of discretion.
One-on-One Conversations with Gossips
What if you've caught a rumormonger in the act? Such instances require a firm and immediate response:
"Justin, as a result of your actions, Joan has become the brunt of some mean-spirited office banter. And as you could imagine, she was embarrassed and humiliated for something that she had absolutely nothing to do with. And that leaves me feeling very disappointed in your lack of discretion and insensitivity.
"Let me be clear: At this point, you've got a perception problem on your hands. The perception that exists is that you've gossiped and fed the corporate grapevine, which has made our work environment toxic. And I'm holding you fully responsible for your own 'perception management' from this point forward.
"I would think that an apology may be in order here, but I'll have to leave that up to you. For now, I really want you to think about your actions and how you may have inadvertently made someone look bad in the eyes of her peers and feel diminished. I want your commitment right now that we'll never have to have a discussion like this again. Are we in agreement here on all accounts?" [Wait to hear the response: "Yes. I'm sorry."]
"Make a note of your conversation's key talking points and write down that the employee verbally agreed to hold himself accountable to his actions going forward," said Nestor Barrero, senior counsel at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Los Angeles. You're not only doing the right thing by addressing this privately and holding the individual accountable; you're also creating a strong record documenting that you addressed this and reset expectations. Should the individual veer down this path again, your decision to document the matter in the form of a written or even final written warning may be well-justified.
"Remember as well," Barrero added, "that you have more discretion with conduct-related infractions than you typically do with performance-related transgressions to escalate the level of discipline. While performance matters may often follow the traditional three-step verbal, written and final written warning pattern, conduct infractions often warrant skipping steps and starting at a higher level of disciplinary action—sometimes at a final written warning or even termination. The employer response will be about misconduct and poor judgment, which warrants a stronger reaction than lapses like absenteeism or sloppy work."
Yes, these issues are sometimes a slippery slope. Nevertheless, left unaddressed and potentially unpunished, they could damage team spirit and goodwill more than just about anything else that the workplace could conjure up. Be direct, be open and shy away from nothing when it comes to eradicating these insidious forces in the workplace. Your team will benefit, your subordinates will respect and appreciate you, and those wrongdoers will learn the error of their ways.
Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, CA and author of 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees: A Manager's Guide to Addressing Performance, Conduct, and Discipline Challenges (HarperCollins Leadership, 2019).