Pssssst! Have you heard? A new study emphasizes the potential value of something typically perceived as detrimental in the workplace—gossip.
The study was published in the journal Group & Organization Management. Academic researchers in the U.S. and South Korea surveyed 338 nurses in the latter country about positive and negative workplace gossip. They found the nurses appreciated workplace gossip when colleagues were talking positively about their managers or employer, but they dismissed negative gossip as useless information from complainers.
The researchers suggested that positive gossip can be empowering for employees and beneficial for employers. They highlighted the possibility that positive workplace gossip could lower the odds of voluntary employee turnover and ultimately might increase an employer’s effectiveness.
However, not all types and outcomes of gossip are positive. Other experts weighed in on the damage gossip can do.
Pros and Cons of Workplace Gossip
Daniel Boscaljon, co-founder of the Healthy Relationship Academy in Cheyenne, Wyo., which partners with employers to establish workplace wellness programs, said gossip often contributes to an unhealthy workplace.
“It separates people who gossip and those who aren’t in the know,” he said, “and also tends to position the objects of gossip against those whispering about them.”
However, Boscaljon believes gossip can play a positive role in the workplace, as the study underscores.
“Overly controlling workplaces tend to create chilled environments where there’s no interaction or communication among employees. In such environments, the presence of any communication can be healthier than none at all,” he explained. “Sometimes, unofficial or back-channeled communication about employees can result in allowing people to come together and support an employee who is having a difficult time.”
Jamie Viramontes, founder and CEO of HR services provider Konnect in Newport Beach, Calif., notes that workplace gossip can help shape employees’ opinions about pending decisions. For example, if a company is considering an office relocation, gossip could enable leaders to get a “temperature check” on employees’ feelings about a possible move.
But that can also backfire.
“Gossip can easily get out of control,” Viramontes said. “Because gossip is hearsay and not fact-based information being shared among co-workers, it can spark uncertainty, concern or negativity very quickly. Rumors can create angst around serious topics like compensation and can cultivate a culture of chaos, which is counterproductive for any department, team or company.”
For her part, Lisa Sanchez, SHRM-SCP, vice president of HR at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., sees no upside to workplace gossip concerning co-workers, managers or executives. In fact, she said, employees might seek to fill information vacuums with negative workplace tales.
Sanchez does support healthy exchanges about workplace conditions, though.
“Perhaps, in some way, those conversations [can] reveal great ideas to improve the environment, workplace culture, and employee experiences and engagements,” she said. “And if employers provide room for psychological safety, then they should welcome employee feedback to hopefully change some of the things that the employer can control.”
How to Manage Workplace Gossip
No matter what HR does, gossip will circulate in the workplace. Given that reality, how can leaders manage workplace gossip to ensure it does little to no harm?
Sanchez recommends staying ahead of gossip by creating opportunities—such as workgroups, committees and task forces—for employees to share their thoughts.
“At the end of the day, employees just want to be heard,” she said.
Sanchez said that in her nearly 30 years in HR, she hasn’t disciplined or terminated someone for gossiping. Employers can instead focus on establishing a culture that sets expectations for positive behavior.
If negative behavior, including damaging gossip, disrupts the workplace culture, Sanchez recommends conducting a “call-in conversation” with the culprit or culprits. Rather than calling out someone for negative conduct, a call-in conversation acknowledges the conduct from a nondefensive posture and focuses on making sure all parties agree on proper workplace behavior.
“Hopefully, one call-in conversation at a time, the workplace will begin to see a decrease in gossip and a stronger organizational culture. I don’t think there’s any way to completely stop gossip,” Sanchez said.
Viramontes said an employer can halt potentially harmful gossip by promptly addressing it. For example, an employer might schedule an all-hands meeting or town hall to respond to rumors or invite employees to pose questions anonymously or directly.
Meanwhile, Boscaljon suggests fostering an atmosphere of positive, healthy interactions to get a grip on workplace gossip.
“Employees who genuinely respect and care for each other naturally steer away from spreading rumors or speaking in shaming or disrespectful ways about another’s situation,” he said.
John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.