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How to Stop Workplace Gossip

February 19, 2009

“Did you hear what she did?”

“Well, I heard that he…”

There they go again. Two of your employees huddled in the break room, speaking in hushed tones. Like deer in the headlights, they immediately stop talking the moment you enter the room. It’s clear they were sharing inside information of a derogatory nature about another coworker. In other words, they were spreading gossip.

For most managers, this situation prompts a variety of emotions. You feel sorry for the victim; angry over the lack of sensitivity and respect for others; and irritated that some people would use productive work time spreading gossip.

Why do they do it?

Gossip is not innocent behavior. Rather, it is a deliberate attempt to discredit another person. The gossip’s motive is to control the behavior of others, especially as it relates to issues of morality or work performance.

Gossip is Harmful

Most employees don’t like it. Surveys consistently show that workplace gossip ranks high on their list of pet peeves. And for good reason. Not only does this type of behavior result in lost productivity, it undermines trust and team morale. And if allowed to get out of hand, it can create a hostile work environment.

What to Do About It

The most direct way to put a lid on workplace gossip of course, is to go directly to the source and tell the offender to stop it, immediately.

Explain that you’re aware he or she has been sharing information of a sensitive or intimate nature and that when people engage in this type of behavior it can be hurtful and damaging, not only to the subject of the rumors but to the entire team. Then firmly insist that it stop.

Especially when dealing with those few individuals who tend to be habitual offenders, this is the most effective strategy.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy.

First, it’s almost impossible to catch people in the act of spreading rumors. And when confronted, they simply deny having done it. Most of the time you have no proof.

But an even bigger problem occurs when you’re caught in the middle. For example: Employee A tells you the Employee B is spreading rumors about Employee C. However, Employee A asks you not to say anything because Employee B will surely know who reported him. “I just wanted to give you a heads-up,” she says.

It’s a tough situation. You need to put a stop to the gossip, but if you do, you betray someone’s confidence in the process. This is the reason many managers fail to take action.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? Actually, there is.

Snuff Out the Flame

The thing about gossip is that each instance requires two people - one to tell the rumor and one to listen. And as long as the listener appears to be interested, the gossip will continue and possibly spread.

Like fire, gossip needs fuel in order to spread. And the fuel in this case is a receptive audience. If no one is willing to listen to it, the gossip is quickly snuffed out.

In the example above, the solution lies with Employee A - the person who reported it to you. Chances are what this person really wants is advice on how to deal with the situation himself. He’s uncomfortable listening to gossip and doesn’t know how to stop it.

You can help by saying, for example: “Thank you for telling me about this. Spreading rumors about another person is hurtful and damaging. The next time (Employee B) approaches you with another rumor, tell him that if he has an issue with (Employee C), perhaps he should talk directly with that person about it. Then walk away. If the rumors persist, let me know.”

Sometimes the Direct Approach is Necessary

There are however, two situations where you can’t allow confidences to stand in the way of confronting the gossip: if the rumors continue or if the subject of the rumors is the person reporting them to you.

In the event the rumors persist even after other employees have indicated they don’t want to hear them, then it is your responsibility to take whatever action necessary to put a stop to it. That means discussing the situation directly with the offender, demanding that it cease, and warning that if it doesn’t, corrective action will be taken.

In addition to talking with the offender, look for opportunities to discuss workplace gossip with the group as a whole. Explain that it is harmful and will not be tolerated.

The other situation occurs when an employee informs you that he is the target of a rumor. This situation is more serious and requires swift action on your part, even if the employee begs you not to do so. For one thing, you have to assume the individual expects you to do something about it (despite what he or she says) or else they would not have reported it to you in the first place. And failure to act can leave you vulnerable later on to an accusation that you were aware of a potentially hostile work situation and took no action to stop it. In this instance, it is your obligation to deal directly with the offender let the chips fall where they may.

While it may not be easy, keeping a lid on workplace gossip is necessary and will help you promote a more productive and team-oriented work environment.

Stephen K. Foster, Ph.D., SPHR
Canopy Software, Inc.
1493 Market Street
Tallahassee, FL 32312
(850) 294-5513

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