Gossip in the Workplace

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  • September 2, 2014

Most people view gossip as a necessary evil and immediately think of the local busybody who spends most of his/her time spreading half-truths or whispering nasty little tidbits into someone’s ear. While gossip does have its ugly and malicious side, it is much more than that. Gossip is a normal, necessary, and healthy activity and is a vital thread in the fabric of our social world. If you don’t believe this, pay attention to your communications for a day and notice how often you talk about and share personal information about yourself and others with the people you encounter. Notice the popular programs on TV; whether the programs are about movie stars, situational comedies or dramas, or “reality” shows, the focus is on human relationships and interactions. Electronic news programs and newspapers tell us about what is happening among our fellow human beings in our community and in the world.

The workplace is a social environment and people will talk about each other. Gossip can strengthen the bonds between people who work together or it can destroy an individual or undermine a work team. Some organizations attempt to eliminate gossip but it just goes underground. Other organizations maintain that employees’ social conversations are none of their business and they let gossip go unchecked in the work environment. Healthy, dynamic and strong organizations address the issue of gossip. These organizations provide leadership by teaching effective workplace communication skills, encouraging multi-faceted interactions between employees, and holding employees accountable for their workplace interpersonal behaviour.

Gossip is a vehicle that can be used to build the connections between people and to enhance individual and team relationships. As you gossip you share your thoughts, ideas, feelings, and opinions about a particular topic or person. And, while you may be talking about other people, you are disclosing a great deal about yourself. You are telling others about the type of person you are and how you define yourself. The more people know about each other, the more likely they are to find common ground. When people know each other’s strengths and interests they have the opportunity to utilize this knowledge to optimize resources within the team. When people are close to each other, they are more committed to helping and supporting one another.

Gossip can increase productivity in a work environment. Meetings and memos serve to transmit the facts but through gossip, the information comes alive. As information is discussed and elaborated upon, problems can be identified and misunderstandings can be clarified and eliminated. Gossip can stimulate creativity and generate new ideas. Gossip travels fast and grabs your attention because by nature you are a social being. You are far more likely to give your full attention to an animated and multi-dimensional human being than you are to a one-dimensional piece of paper or electronic communication.

It is very true that whatever can be used for good, can also be used for evil. Gossip has a dark side and the dangers of gossip are always lurking. Most of us are all too familiar with the hurtful and destructive characteristics of gossip. Gossip can be used as a weapon for workplace competition, conflict, or even for a personal vendetta. It can destroy a person’s self-esteem or assassinate their character. Gossip can isolate a person from the group or divide the team. When people gossip, they often inadvertently make assumptions and convey more information than they know to be true. Misunderstandings are frequent because the spoken word is easily misinterpreted. A person who gossips might exaggerate to build his or her own sense of power as they convey very personal or key information. A gossiper may even downright lie to get a leg up on the competition, to sabotage an individual or project, or to destroy the credibility of a co-worker. Once a lie is told, it is very hard to replace it with the truth; the impact lingers for a long time.

Gossip can undermine productivity in numerous ways. Idle gossip may seem harmless on the surface, but it hurts the organization by wasting time and taking the focus off of the real work. While gossip can disseminate information quickly, it is of little use if the information is wrong or inaccurate. Hurtful gossip can fuel backbiting, sabotage, and retaliation between individuals or groups. Hurtful gossip generates powerful emotions that drain employees’ time, motivation, attention, and energy. The work of the organization can take second place to the drama of interpersonal relationships. If individuals are turning on each other, it probably won’t be long before they turn on the organization as they look for a target for their unhappiness in the work environment.

Gossip can destroy the interpersonal trust that team members need to work effectively together. A person who gossips about others in negative ways erodes the good will between others and often creates defensiveness and hurt feelings. Some people gossip to build themselves up by putting others down.

Hurtful gossip can poison a work environment. When communication and workplace relationships are unhealthy, the individuals in the work environment become unhealthy as they begin to show the symptoms of a stressful work climate. Even if some employees are not involved in the gossip they are impacted by the tension around them. In an unhealthy work environment, absenteeism due to casual illness and long-term disability will increase. Good employees will not put up with a spiteful or destructive work climate for long. They soon quit and go elsewhere, or they find some other way to detach from a toxic work environment.

Gossip cannot be eliminated from the workplace. If emails are monitored, people will send written notes. If employees are prevented in some way from talking during work hours, they’ll talk after hours. No matter what barrier an employer sets up, employees will find a way around it. Remember, gossiping is a part of our human nature.

If an organization ignores workplace gossip in the belief that personal relationships and conversations are none of their business, they will do so at their peril. Not only do organizations pay a price in terms of employee wellness, individual and team performance, organizations have liability for the damaging effects of workplace gossip. When gossip reaches the levels of bullying, character assassination, or illness due to the stress of the work environment, then there is trouble. Organizations have a moral and legal responsibility to provide a work environment that is free of offensive behaviour and harassment. Harmful and unchecked mean-spirited gossip can be considered both offensive and a form of workplace harassment

Both individuals and organizations have a responsibility to ensure that gossip in the workplace does not have a detrimental impact on employees or on the organization. Here are some things that you can do.

Organizational Responsibility

Healthy and effective organizations recognize the importance of values and understand that an organization is only as good as its people. These organizations are very deliberate in creating a culture and maintaining a work climate that will express the values of the company. Corporate values define how employees and customers are to be treated and how the work of the organization is to be conducted. The leaders or those in a position of power have the responsibility for establishing and monitoring the culture and climate of the work environment. This means that the leaders must first agree on and then clearly communicate to their employees the values of the organization. We are all value-driven even though we may not have taken the time to look deeply into our beliefs and behaviour and to articulate these values.

I mention both beliefs and behaviour because there may be a huge difference between professed values and our expressed values. Professed values are those values that you say you believe in. Expressed values are those values that guide your behaviour and form the basis of your decision-making consistently over time. For example, you might say that you value honesty but if you find a wallet on the bus and keep the money in it, there is a gap between what you say and what you do. Most people are not aware of these gaps unless they go through a formal exercise designed to elicit these differences at a deeper level. This doesn’t mean that people are intentionally dishonest with themselves; it usually means that they just haven’t given much thought to this issue. So, what does this have to do with gossip?

When the leaders in an organization recognize the power of gossip, they will actively use this tool to maximize the benefits, reduce liability, and minimize the costs of gossip in terms of employee wellbeing, effectiveness, and productivity. This can be accomplished by explicitly articulating the desired values and expectations regarding employee communications; assisting employees to become aware of their expressed values; teaching effective, respectful and responsible workplace communication skills; and implementing rewards and sanctions for workplace behaviours. Rewards for behaviours that actively contribute to supporting the expressed values of the organization can include recognition, career advancement, and remuneration. Sanctions for behaviours that violate the expressed values of the organization can include disciplinary action leading to termination of employment, reduced opportunities for career progression, and/or withholding of monetary rewards if there is a lack of willingness to correct behaviour.

Organizations can also communicate their value of maintaining a healthy team climate and work environment by conducting values clarification exercises with employee groups and making the connection between individual and corporate values/goals. People must be taught how to successfully contribute to a corporate environment. Organizations would do well to actively teach employees the responsibilities of effective group membership as well as teaching the skills of personal leadership.

Individual Responsibility

Each person is responsible for his or her communication and behaviour in the work environment. Before you open your mouth to say anything, ask yourself these three questions. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful? These questions will help you to think before you speak and will guide you in your decision-making process. If your organization has fulfilled its responsibility, you will know how to answer these questions and you will be held accountable for what you say and do at work.

This doesn’t mean that you cannot gossip. You can share all kinds of information but be aware of your intention and of the impact your words will have on others. Also be aware that you define yourself by your words and your behaviour. When you speak, you are really saying more about yourself than you are about the other person. If your intent is to hurt, isolate, or destroy a colleague, it will backfire on you. Not only will you be defining yourself as mean, petty, and dangerous, you may be jeopardizing your position within the company.

You must also remember that everyone gossips and they will gossip about you. Based on your words and behaviour, what do you think they will say about you? When you see that your words and behaviour reflect who you are, you can consciously choose to emphasize your strengths and good qualities while you are working on becoming a better human being. People get to know each other over a period of time and everyone in a work group knows who is trustworthy, who exaggerates, who is supportive, who engages in backbiting, who lies, and who harbours evil intent.

Words are very powerful and they can land hard but you must remember that people are human. People will talk about you just like you will talk about them. Don’t be too sensitive and don’t look for opportunities to take offence. If you hear that someone has said something unkind about you, don’t assume that this is true and don’t take the bait. Maybe someone is just trying to stir the pot – there are many people that enjoy the chaos and pain of interpersonal conflict. Perhaps the comment has been exaggerated, taken out of context, or otherwise misinterpreted. If it really bothers you, go directly to the person who is supposedly the source and ask them if this was really said about you. If it is true, remind yourself that you cannot control what other people talk about and that not everyone in this world has to like you. Others are entitled to their opinion just as you are entitled to yours.

While there may be a few people who stick together in a work group and compete with other individuals or groups, using hurtful gossip to gain the advantage is a dangerous game. It is far too easy to push the “Send” button and have your email go to the wrong person or to have your conversations overheard by someone else. Negative gossip creates enemies and loyalties can change overnight. Tomorrow, next week or next month, you may be the person who is being targeted or isolated. Make a conscious decision to be positive in your interactions with others and to not engage in damaging gossip.

Remember that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. We all live in a glass house because we all have our weaknesses and our failures. Your best bet is to put down the stones of hurtful words, smile in understanding of our shared human frailties, act kindly, respectfully and with compassion, and walk away from the dangers of hurtful gossip.

Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., C. Psych.
Consulting Psychologist