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Gossip Poisons Business -- HR Can Stop It

July 15, 2001
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Featured Article
Marie W. recalls the day she stepped into her cubicle at a major insurance companyand overheard her coworkers buzzing about her sex life over coffee and doughnuts.As the discussion about her sexual preferences seeped through the partitionwalls, she cringed and recoiled in horror. The fact that the rumor was falsecontributed to only part of her feelings of embarrassment, betrayal, and degradation.

    “It’s even worse that your character is destroyedin front of the entire company. There is no way to describe how awful it isto become the object of company ridicule. I wanted to disappear and never comeback. I felt like I was wearing a scarlet letter.”

    On that rainy November morning, the 32-year-old singlewoman realized that the gloom outside the office window was nothing comparedto how she felt inside. During the following weeks, her hurt and anger mountedand her productivity declined. Rather than denying that she was a “dyke,”as they had referred to her, she quietly shuffled papers and did the best shecould to trudge through her work and get through the day. Three months afterthe incident, she quit the job and found a place to work where she was treatedwith dignity and respect.

    Being the brunt of malicious gossip “affects yourability to land meaningful work and get a promotion,” she says. While there’sno way to completely escape cruel rumors in the workplace, “at least somecompanies nurture a functional and productive culture,” she notes. “There’snothing worse than feeling like you’re living and working in a snake pit.”

    Lies, rumors, and office gossip have always been anentrenched part of the workscape. The office water cooler has long been a placeto chitchat about the latest company news and to swap lurid tales. But in today’sincreasingly angry and malicious society, where road rage is an everyday eventand body bags invade the news, the nature and intensity of gossip have hit newlows. And, thanks to the Internet and e-mail, it’s possible to spread uglywords as fast as a nasty virus.

The Gossip Mill Wreaks Havoc
    While there’s no way to measure how common or destructiveoffice gossip is, it’s clear that it can wreak havoc in an organization,says Jane Weizmann, a senior consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

    Yet determining what’s unacceptable and tryingto establish a clear-cut policy can prove elusive. Some gossip and banter --including discussions about Hollywood celebrities or a child’s soccer league-- can help employees bond and create a sense of camaraderie.

    But when the gossip mill begins to grind people upand ruin their reputations, there is both cause for concern and a real needfor the human resources professional to step in. When left to fester, gossipcan not only cause deep personal pain but also lead to turnover, conflict, andlawsuits.

    “Gossip can take on a life of its own,” saysAnnette Simmons, president of Group Process Consulting and author of ASafe Place for Dangerous Truths: Using Dialogue to Overcome Fear and Distrustat Work (AMACOM, 1999). “Some of it might only serve as backgroundnoise, but it can distract and demoralize workers.” She says that gossipoften heats up when workers are bored or lack significant information aboutmajor company events.

    Men often use gossip as a form of political control,while women employ it to make themselves look and feel important. “Whenpeople aren’t fully engaged in work, it creates a vacuum. And when theydon’t know what’s going on, especially regarding promotions and layoffs,they begin to speculate.”

Why Gossip Persists
    Cruel though it can be, gossip also serves as one ofthe most important parts of social interaction, notes Robin Dunbar, professorof psychology at the University of Liverpool and author of Grooming,Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Harvard University Press, 1996).

    “What characterizes the social life of humansis the intense interest we show in each other’s doings,” Dunbar says.“Language...allows us to exchange information about other people, so short-circuitingthe laborious process of finding out how they behave.”

    Nowhere is this more glaring than in the workplace,where people come and go, and interpersonal interaction is often transient andsuperficial. “Not every rumor that comes out of the office gossip millhas the power to be...damaging,” says Ingrid Murro Botero, president ofMurro Consulting, Inc., a Phoenix management consulting and corporate outplacementfirm. “However, even seemingly casual remarks between coworkers can disruptan otherwise peaceful office.”

    It’s a fact that Rebecca Gushue knows all toowell. The HR generalist and compensation specialist at GENEX Services, Inc.,in Wayne, Pennsylvania, has worked with employees as well as local universitystudents to improve communication and reduce gossip. At a previous job at amanufacturing company, she says, gossip and office politics severely affectedthe work environment. “People had their reputations and their careers destroyed.Once a story channels through a few hundred people, it becomes very distorted.”

    She says that the gossip usually took two forms: relationship-orientedtalk that focused on which executives and managers were dating which employees;and office politics about who was on the verge of being promoted, fired, ortransferred. In some cases, she says, the gossip was designed to slander ordefame an individual, often for personal or political gain.

    Making matters worse, managers often looked the otherway or engaged in the gossip themselves. “Management opened itself up tosignificant liability by not dealing with the problem.”

    Left unchecked, certain kinds of office gossip canlead to serious problems. Employees who perceive that they’re working ina hostile environment might also feel that they are the subject of discrimination.Simmons says management sets the tone with its attitudes and policies, but aflood of gossip is often the result of workers who lack information and havetoo much time on their hands. “When management withholds information, itcreates a vacuum. People fill in the unknown with their assumptions, and thingsbegin to spiral down.”

Companies Where Gossip Flourishes
    Not surprisingly, certain companies are more prone togossip than others. Organizations that foster a chummy, cliquey environment-- particularly where some employees feel like outsiders -- can undermine relationshipsand productivity.

    So can offices or factories that pit workers againstone another -- such as a unionized workplace where management and labor areoften at odds. A few years ago, Simmons visited a large manufacturing facility.She immediately encountered a level of vileness and vitriol that she found shocking.“People were saying all sorts of nasty things behind each other’sbacks.”

    When she called a meeting and asked key union and managementleaders to voice their concerns, it turned out that 31 of the 33 people in theroom didn’t like the gossip either. They wanted the two people whom theyidentified as the source of the problem to stop the character assassinations.

    Because members of the group hadn’t talked toone another about the matter before, they hadn’t realized that others sharedtheir distaste for the cutting behavior. Suddenly, the silent majority spokeup and let the loudmouths know that they wouldn’t tolerate the gossip anylonger. “It changed the entire atmosphere,” Simmons says.

Confronting the Problem
    In curbing gossip, direct confrontation is often effective.A human resources administrator for a large juvenile court system in the Midwestsays that she regularly tracks down the alleged instigator and asks if the personis the source of a rumor or gossip, and then deals with it on the spot.

    “If the person is guilty and he or she admitsit, I tell them to please stop, that it is causing too many problems. If theperson claims not to be the source, then I leave it at that. They’ve probablygotten the message anyway.”

    She notes that the system also has a broad ethics andprofessionalism policy in place that outlines appropriate behavior and actionsat work, and she uses humor, whenever possible, to diffuse confrontations andinterpersonal problems.

    Weizmann says that developing a specific policy todeal with gossip and rumors is next to impossible. Although certain commentsmight be clearly inappropriate, it’s a daunting task to determine exactlywhat is out of place and what specific action should be taken.

    Smart companies, she says, build performance-managementand performance-evaluation systems that measure the effectiveness-or ineffectiveness-ofemployees’ communication skills. If a manager isn’t equipped to dealwith an employee, then it’s probably a good idea to enlist the help ofa human resources specialist.

    Botero says that organizations should deal with rumorspromptly. The leadership should be direct but tactful. They should talk to theemployees involved individually and in a group, listen to both sides of theissue, set up one-on-one meetings between the injured party and anyone involvedin spreading the rumor, and schedule follow-up meetings for everyone involved.

    At smaller firms, she says, it’s wise to schedulea once-a-month employee meeting that allows everyone to talk about their concernsin the office. Larger companies should set up a hotline to allow employees toask about or clarify rumors as soon as they hear them.

    As we all know, all the planning and preparation inthe world cannot prevent gossip. “It is an ingrained part of our nature,”Dunbar says. He notes that photocopy machines and water coolers often serveas the foundation for a complex social network within an organization. And removingthese hubs for interaction can create an array of problems, and lead to a downturnin performance. As Simmons points out, “A certain amount of small talk-- sharing small details of your life -- helps people feel closer to coworkers.It is what humanizes the workplace and helps people bond.”

    Finding the right balance is the key. There inevitablywill be those who sling lies, rumors, and gossip. It’s when people arehurt and reputations are damaged that the issue can sink an organization. “Honestyand consistency in communication is the key to success,” Weizmann says.“It is essential for companies to set appropriate boundaries and a toneof mutual respect.”

Workforce, July 2001, pp. 24-28-- SubscribeNow!

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