Gossip Poisons Business HR Can Stop It

Gossip Poisons Business HR Can Stop It

Samuel Greengard

Whisper campaigns ruin a workplace. Here are the steps HR can take to squelch the rumors and clear the air.

Marie W. recalls the day she stepped into her cubicle at a major insurance company and overheard her coworkers buzzing about her sex life over coffee and doughnuts. As the discussion about her sexual preferences seeped through the partition walls, she cringed and recoiled in horror. The fact that the rumor was false contributed to only part of her feelings of embarrassment, betrayal, and degradation. “It’s even worse that your character is destroyed in front of the entire company There is no way to describe how awful it is to become the object of company ridicule. I wanted to disappear and never come back. I felt like I was wearing a scarlet letter.”

On that rainy November morning, the 32-year-old single woman realized that the gloom outside the office window was nothing compared to how she felt inside. During the following weeks, her hurt and anger mounted and 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 she could to trudge through her work and get through the day. Three months after the incident, she quit the job and found a place to work where she was treated with dignity and respect.

Being the brunt of malicious gossip “affects your ability to land meaningful work and get a promotion,” she says. While there’s no way to completely escape cruel rumors in the workplace, “at least some companies nurture a functional and productive culture,” she notes. “There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re living and working in a snake pit.”

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

The Gossip Mill Wreaks Havoc

While there’s no way to measure how common or destructive office 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 trying to 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 up and ruin their reputations, there is both cause for concern and a real need for the human resources professional to step in. When left to fester, gossip can not only cause deep personal pain but also lead to turnover, conflict, and lawsuits.

“Gossip can take on a life of its own,” says Annette Simmons, president of Group Process Consulting and author of A Safe Place for Dangerous Truths: Using Dialogue to Overcome Fear and Distrust at Work (AMACOM, 1999). “Some of it might only serve as background noise, but it can distract and demoralize workers.” She says that gossip often heats up when workers are bored or lack significant information about major company events. Men often use gossip as a form of political control, while women employ it to make themselves look and feel important. “When people aren’t fully engaged in work, it creates a vacuum. And when they don’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 of the most important parts of social interaction, notes Robin Dunbar, professor of 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 humans is the intense interest we show in each other’s doings,” Dunbar says. “Language…allows us to exchange information about other people, so short-circuiting the 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 and superficial. “Not every rumor that comes out of the office gossip mill has the power to be … damaging,” says Ingrid Murro Botero, president of Murro Consulting, Inc., a Phoenix management consulting and corporate outplacement firm. “However, even seemingly casual remarks between coworkers can disrupt an otherwise peaceful office.”

It’s a fact that Rebecca Gushue knows all too well. The HR generalist and compensation specialist at GENEX Services, Inc., in Wayne, Pennsylvania, has worked with employees as well as local university students to improve communication and reduce gossip. At a previous job at a manufacturing company, she says, gossip and office politics severely affected the 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-oriented talk that focused on which executives and managers were dating which employees; and office politics about who was on the verge of being promoted, fired, or transferred. In some cases, she says, the gossip was designed to slander or defame an individual, often for personal or political gain. Making matters worse, managers often looked the other way or engaged in the gossip themselves. “Management opened itself up to significant liability by not dealing with the problem.”

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

Companies Where Gossip Flourishes

Not surprisingly, certain companies are more prone to gossip than others. Organizations that foster a chummy, cliquey environment–particularly where some employees feel like outsiders–can undermine relationships and productivity. So can offices or factories that pit workers against one another–such as a unionized workplace where management and labor are often 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’s backs.”

When she called a meeting and asked key union and management leaders to voice their concerns, it turned out that 31 of the 33 people in the room didn’t like the gossip either. They wanted the two people whom they identified as the source of the problem to stop the character assassinations. Because members of the group hadn’t talked to one another about the matter before, they hadn’t realized that others shared their distaste for the cutting behavior. Suddenly, the silent majority spoke up and let the loudmouths know that they wouldn’t tolerate the gossip any longer. “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 Midwest says that she regularly tracks down the alleged instigator and asks if the person is the source of a rumor or gossip, and then deals with it on the spot. “If the person is guilty and he or she admits it, I tell them to please stop, that it is causing too many problems. If the person claims not to be the source, then I leave it at that. They’ve probably gotten the message anyway.” She notes that the system also has a broad ethics and professionalism policy in place that outlines appropriate behavior and actions at work, and she uses humor, whenever possible, to diffuse confrontations and interpersonal problems.

Weizmann says that developing a specific policy to deal with gossip and rumors is next to impossible. Although certain comments might be clearly inappropriate, it’s a daunting task to determine exactly what is out of place and what specific action should be taken. Smart companies, she says, build performance-management and performance-evaluation systems that measure the effectiveness–or ineffectiveness–of employees’ communication skills. If a manager isn’t equipped to deal with an employee, then it’s probably a good idea to enlist the help of a human resources specialist.

Botero says that organizations should deal with rumors promptly. The leadership should be direct but tactful. They should talk to the employees involved individually and in a group, listen to both sides of the issue, set up one-on-one meetings between the injured party and anyone involved in spreading the rumor, and schedule follow-up meetings for everyone involved. At smaller firms, she says it’s wise to schedule a once-a-month employee meeting that allows everyone to talk about their concerns in the office. Larger companies should set up a hotline to allow employees to ask about or clarify rumors as soon as they hear them.

As we all know, all the planning and preparation in the world cannot prevent gossip. “It is an ingrained part of our nature,” Dunbar says. He notes that photocopy machines and water coolers often serve as the foundation for a complex social network within an organization. And removing these hubs for interaction can create an array of problems, and lead to a downturn in 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 inevitably will be those who sling lies, rumors, and gossip. It’s when people are hurt and reputations are damaged that the issue can sink an organization. “Honesty and consistency in communication is the key to success,” Weizmann says. “It is essential for companies to set appropriate boundaries and a tone of mutual respect.”

Sam Greengard is a contributing writer for Workforce. He is based in Burbank, California.

Spreading the Bad Word

Only a few years ago, gossip traveled at the sound of the human voice. While a person could pick up the telephone and call someone else anywhere in the world, the exchange took place on a one-to-one basis. The advent of the Internet has changed the communications equation. Today, e-mail messages rocket around the world in seconds, with dozens and sometimes hundreds of names on a distribution list.

That can be disruptive for companies, which can find their e-mail systems buckling under the weight of mindless missives and jokes, chain letters, and gossip. Lynn Hamilton, who teaches management communication at the MeIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia, says that our messages can “provide a real window into our relationships with coworkers and clients.”

It is important for companies and individuals to take responsibility for what is sent, she insists. Hamilton also recommends that anyone using e-mail conduct a “personal e-mail audit” and “go back through e-mail you’ve sent over the past week or month and ask yourself… whether you engage in gossip or criticize people behind their backs.”

“E-mail provides the fastest means we’ve ever had to quickly offer praise and other thoughtful messages to a large number of people. It can reduce friction and prevent the erosion of relationships. The real drain on time occurs when we have to repair communication problems after they’ve already occurred,” she says.

Unlike the spoken word, which is difficult to document and subject to a great deal of interpretation–and misinterpretation–e-mail messages are usually clear-cut. That fact, experts say, allows human resources and IT to develop concrete policies and work to minimize the negative influence of e-gossiping.

“Workers who spend an inordinate amount of time gossiping online must understand that it isn’t acceptable,” says Annette Simmons, a Greensboro, North Carolina, communications consultant. “Left unchecked, it can become a huge waste of resources.”

Five Ways to Combat Office Gossip

Here’s how HR can reduce the problems associated with office gossip:

* Keep employees informed. When employees know what’s going on within an organization, particularly with regard to company directives, promotions, and potential actions, they’re far less inclined to speculate. Effective communication can take place online, through a newsletter, and at weekly face-to-face departmental meetings.

* Help build a culture that’s supportive rather than overly competitive. The worst gossip and mobbing problems often occur at organizations where the climb to the top is ruthless. HR can aid workers by instituting support systems, including counseling for those who instigate or wind up as the target of gossip. It’s also important to educate senior management about the problem.

* Let workers know that malicious personal gossip is not acceptable. Attacking other employees–whether out of boredom or dislike for an individual, or for political gain–can create severe tension, animosity, and organizational problems. Its also not fair to the victim. Employees should know how damaging it is to partake in gossip and mobbing.

* Deal with rumors immediately. Left unchecked, a rumor can quickly spiral out of control. It can quickly sap energy and productivity as workers spend time speculating about things rather than getting work done. When a problem arises, talk to employees individually and, if necessary, set up a meeting between the victim and those spreading the rumor.

* Confront chronic offenders. Those who spend an inordinate amount of time gossiping should know that the behavior is not acceptable. One way to deal with the issue is to address a perceived problem during an employee evaluation. However, it might also be necessary to sit an offender down and discuss the problem when it occurs.

Managing the Mob

While office gossip might inflict a great deal of pain, there’s an even nastier practice that runs rampant at some companies: mobbing. Workers gang up on another employee, including a boss, in an attempt to intimidate, bully, or humiliate and force the person out–usually through scathing verbal abuse.

Whether it’s a project manager who is berated by a senior executive, or a secretary belittled for not doing her job right, mobbing can devastate lives and cause mayhem. “Coworkers, colleagues, superiors, and subordinates attack their dignity, integrity, and competence, repeatedly, over a number of weeks, months, or years. At the end, they resign–voluntarily or involuntarily–are terminated, or are forced into early retirement,” write Noa Davenport, Ruth Distler Schwartz, and Gail Pursell Elliott, co-authors of Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace (Civil Society Publishing, 1999).

A number of factors contribute to the problem. Frequently, “mobbing behaviors are ignored, tolerated, misinterpreted, or actually instigated by the company or the organization’s management as a deliberate strategy,” the authors say. Then there’s the fact that mobbing has not yet been identified as a workplace behavior that’s subject to action. Finally, more often than not, “the victims are worn down, feel destroyed, and exhausted. They feel incapable of defending themselves, let alone initiating legal action.”

Although there’s no single approach to coping with the problem, experts say that several strategies can help. For individuals who become the target of mobbing, written documentation can spur action on the part of the company or substantiate a legal claim. In many cases, confronting a bully in an assertive, non-combative way can help defuse the problem. If that doesn’t work, going straight to the bully’s boss and requesting a specific action–such as a transfer or a grievance hearing–can help.

At the enterprise level, human resources should take a strong stand against mobbing. A well-crafted policy can define certain types of behavior that are unacceptable–such as “belittling, humiliating, or verbally abusing another employee.” In addition, a system for logging and reviewing complaints is essential, and those responsible for carrying on such behavior should be warned, reprimanded, or terminated.

COPYRIGHT 2001 ACC Communications Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group