Gossip in the workplace is a bigger problem now than ever before. Unlike in years past, gossipers are no longer confined to standing around the watercooler or chatting by the coffee machine. Thanks to social media, texting, apps and other forms of modern communication, negativity can be spread in myriad ways with widespread impact.
Years ago, I took over as manager of an office plagued by gossip. Morale and trust in leadership were low. Employees frequently expressed their angst through gossip. I made it my mission to eliminate this problem. The office functioned much better once I achieved that goal.
HR can provide a great service to employers by adopting a similar mission. HR professionals are in an optimal position to find out if a gossip problem exists, and they can intervene and coach and advise others on how to fix the problem.
Here are some steps to eradicate gossip in your workplace.
1. Communicate a message to all employees. I don't mean delivering a zero-tolerance threat of punishment for gossiping, but a positive message about aspiring to create a workplace where every employee feels safe, secure, respected and appreciated. The message should explain how professional and constructive communication creates the foundation for this type of environment and how gossip undermines it.
The message should also state that deterring gossip does not mean deterring communication about problems. By explaining the benefits of constructive feedback, we teach employees how to address issues in a professional, respectful and solution-oriented way. There's a huge difference between reporting problems to get them resolved and spreading verbal poison.
Marci Rechtenbach, attorney with Jones Waldo in Salt Lake City, adds a cautionary note: "Employers working to tackle workplace gossip should remember that there are certain topics—namely wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment—that employees have a legal right to discuss under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act [NLRA]. Interfering with this legal right could land an employer in hot water with the National Labor Relations Board. It is important to distinguish between simple gossip meant to disparage co-workers and the types of discussions protected under the NLRA. Employers with questions about these issues may wish to consult experienced employment law counsel."
2. HR and management must model the desired behavior. Gossip is especially toxic when participants include members of management or HR. Being a member of the HR or management team should require a commitment to setting a positive example.
A company president explained to me, "A single lapse in judgment or slip into gossip or negativity by a leader can undermine years of work and effort."
Colleen McManus, SHRM-SCP, a senior HR executive with the state of Arizona, shared an experience: "An employee once said to me, 'I'm sure you could tell some stories, because you know all the dirt on everyone from having seen their personnel files.' I explained that unless I'd had a business-related reason to work with an individual's file, I didn't access personnel files, especially on any mission to seek out 'the dirt.' She seemed shocked by this, but it was an important learning point for her, and it reinforced the professional conduct we were trying to establish throughout the organization."
3. Implement constructive confrontation and mutual ownership of the solution. To address the gossip problem at my office, in addition to sending messages to the group, I had one-on-one conversations with each of the employees I suspected were proponents of, participants in or witnesses to negative talk about others. I did not accuse anyone of gossiping. Rather, I expressed my mission to eradicate gossip and asked each person for his or her help. I asked questions such as "What can we do so that the desire to gossip doesn't exist?" "How can I help?" "How can you help?" "What are some things we can do to promote the most positive and respectful workplace?" I did my best to enlist them in an anti-gossip campaign.
4. Coach employees on how to deter gossip. Here are several good roles to play in your conversations with employees.
- Contrarian: "I'm not sure that's correct. I haven't had that issue with Bill, and he's never said or done anything to my knowledge that suggests he has something against you."
- Problem solver: "Have you spoken with Bill about this issue? If not, I recommend a direct conversation and would be happy to facilitate it."
- Subject changer: "Huh, that's news to me about Bill. Hey, who do you think will win the NBA championship this year? I'm partial to the Lakers. How about you?"
- Vanishing audience member: "Sorry, I don't have time to hear more about Bill. Work's piling up, and I've got to get to it."
- Mr. or Ms. Positivity: "Really? Let me tell you how Bill helped me out. He was great!"
When there's a commitment from organization leadership and HR, approaches like these are highly successful. The proactive measures shine a disconcertingly bright light on rumormongers. Gossiping is no longer fun and instead becomes distasteful.