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Tips for managing workplace gossip

October 5, 2018

By Kristen Cifolelli, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

According to a study from the University of Amsterdam published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 90% of office conversations qualify as gossip. That means we all have probably been guilty at one point or another of either participating in or being an enabler of workplace gossip.  When we think of workplace gossip, most of us imagine hallway or watercooler type conversations, but surprisingly research at the Georgia Institute of Technology concluded that gossip even makes up 15% of office e-mail.
According to the dictionary, gossip is defined as “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”  But not all office gossip is bad.  The University of Amsterdam study found that gossip “makes it possible for group members to warn each other against those who do not behave in accordance with the group’s norms.”  Therefore, the threat of gossip can influence slackers to get with the program and pull their own weight.  The study’s authors were able to trace gossip back thousands of years, suggesting humans used it as soon as they were able to speak as a technique to curb ‘free riders’ who would eat mammoth meat without helping to catch the animal.
Where employers need to be concerned is when workplace gossip starts to damage morale, impact productivity, and malign reputations.  Gossip typically is stoked wherever there is uncertainty in the workplace or concerns around transparency.  Whenever there is a knowledge void, employers should remember that employees will create their own reality and assumptions.  Therefore, the best way employers can manage that kind of damaging workplace gossip is to ensure to fill any void by communicating honestly, openly, and providing facts.   Here are some tips to help managers shut down negative gossip:
Address rumors quickly – If managers are hearing rumors, they need to nip it in the bud quickly.  Managers should go directly to the source and determine what the gossiper’s key concerns might be.  By addressing issues head on with correct information, managers may be able to stop the gossip before it gets out of control. During this meeting managers should discuss how the employee’s behavior is impacting morale and productivity. Use a coaching approach when possible to help the employee improve their behavior.  This meeting should happen privately vs. in a public setting.
Set an example – Managers can often be just as bad when it comes to gossip as their direct reports.  Be a good role model, and don’t engage in the gossip.  This will set the tone that this type of behavior is not acceptable.

Meet with your team – Have open discussions with your team to discuss the negative consequences of gossip and appropriate ways that concerns should be raised.

Defect negative gossip – When gossip arises, share positive feedback about the person being discussed.  The gossiper will often times quickly stop and not visit you again when you repeatedly respond to negative comments with positive ones.

Encourage positive gossip – Create a culture where employees are encouraged to share positive stories about project successes, good client feedback, and other things that they feel proud about.  Use social media to share examples of employees going above and beyond to help craft your employer brand.
In the end, there is not much that employers can do to eliminate workplace gossip other than to encourage open communication and be as transparent as possible.  Creating no-gossip policies would be impossible to enforce and can run into conflicts with workplace rights, let alone would be a nightmare to try and investigate.

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