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Gossip's Toll on the Workplace

April 7, 2010

Workplace gossip is not simply idle chatter. It’s a form of “reputational warfare,” says sociologist Tim Hallett. It is ubiquitous, occurring by the proverbial water cooler as well as within the formal setting of a meeting. Once a bad reputation has been solidified, justified or not, it usually sticks—often with consequential results for the entire organization.

Hallett’s findings, published in the fall in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, illuminate not only how gossip occurs in the workplace but how it can be handled before it dilutes a person’s ability to manage effectively, poisons workplace congeniality and contributes to employee turnover.

“If we can understand how gossip works,” says Hallett, an assistant professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, “and how it unfolds and what people are doing as they are engaging in gossip, that gives you an opportunity to manage it.”

Hallett’s insights are straight from the trenches. He spent a year observing teachers and administrators in a Midwestern public elementary school before introducing a small video camera to record meetings. Thirteen 40-minute meetings yielded more than eight hours of video.

Analyzing the videos, Hallett observed that even in formal meetings convened to discuss students, teachers gossiped about their colleagues. Most of their chatter was negative, and directed at the school’s new principal. Sometimes the teachers were scathingly direct; more often, they were indirect and subtle.

Either way, the cumulative effect of the gossip was to undermine the authority of the school principal, concluded Hallett and colleagues Brent Harger and Donna Eder in their paper.

The negative gossip “played an important role in the construction of workplace problems and relational politics,” the authors write.

The principal was brought in by the school district to increase accountability. Teachers feared her but did not respect her. Her reforms were met with resistance.

The ensuing turmoil contributed to high turnover, as more than a quarter of the faculty left. While the turnover may have been part of a broader strategy, Hallett argues that if the gossip had been better managed the school would have been spared unnecessary drama and the principal would have been more successful.

“For this new principal, gossip was a way the teachers were looking at her as an un-credible person,” Hallett says. “Without that informal legitimacy, in the eyes of her teachers, it was very difficult for this person to get people on board with the things she was trying to do.”

The lessons for managers everywhere are instructive: Manage gossip before it defines you.

Managers must first have access to the gossip. This requires informal relationships with workers across a company’s hierarchy as well as a cadre of workers who are confidants, says Calvin Morrill, a professor of law and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

“If you don’t have those ties, you can’t access people,” Morrill says. “I think that’s one of the hallmarks of a potentially disastrous managerial regime.”

The gossip itself can be instructive of what’s important to employees and to whom they feel closest and help a manager diagnose problems.

Managers can then neutralize a negative comment about a person with something positive.

“Once a negative evaluation has been supported, it increases pressure to agree,” Hallett says.

To a lesser degree, one can divert criticism that has been levied against one colleague by directing it against another. The most effective way to stop the gossip is to halt it in its tracks, switch topics or, if the gossip occurs during a meeting, simply get back to the agenda at hand.

Workforce Management, March 2010, p. 3 -- Subscribe Now!