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What Is Office Gossip?
Gossip is generally defined as casual talk about others that may not be true. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects the rights of employees to talk about workplace-related topics, including wages and working conditions. What is not protected by the NLRA are conversations that intend to harm another person with false information on topics outside of work.
Why Is Gossip Harmful?
Negative office gossip causes harm to individuals, teams, and the company’s success and reputation.
- Morale. Morale decreases when the target of the gossip and other employees walk into work wondering what gossip or negativity they should expect each day. It immediately drains employees’ energy and time.
- Psychological safety/bullying. The target of the gossip suffers the worst because it shatters their psychological safety at work. Negative gossip can be classed as bullying.
- Pessimism. When negative gossip overtakes a team or company, it becomes increasingly difficult for employees to have a positive outlook about work.
- Turnover. Office gossip that is left unchecked may result in good employees leaving the organization to search for a better work environment.
- Lost productivity. Respect and good intent make working relationships more effective. Attempts to harm the reputations of others lower productivity and satisfaction with one’s work.
- Erosion of trust. When employees don’t know what is fact or fiction, they may turn against each other and grow resentful. Resentful employees destroy team camaraderie and further lower productivity.
Examples of Office Gossip
Not all office gossip is bad or prohibited, and it’s important to know the difference.
Here are examples of gossip that are protected by the NLRA.
- Did you see those executives from the private equity firm come in this morning? They have spent the last five years buying companies similar to our size. Do you think they are here to buy this company?
- I went to my doctor and they said I’m not covered, even though I paid my premiums. I called the insurance company and they said the company did not pay their portion. What does this company expect from us?
- HR just told me Mary took a different position! I thought she was just out sick. HR didn’t say how they will fill the position, but I hope they find somebody better than her.
Here are a few examples of negative gossip that should be addressed directly.
- Jean lost four dress sizes while she was gone the last two weeks! What do you think caused her “miracle weight loss”? I bet she did liposuction.
- I don’t believe Jon belongs in HR. He is so quiet. He probably is terrified any time an employee goes to speak with him.
- Sally got promoted seemingly overnight. I didn’t think anything of it until I heard her tell the boss she had a great time in Maui with him. She must have slept with the boss to get the promotion.
How to Prevent Gossip in the Workplace
Not all gossip can be prevented, and leadership needs to develop a thick skin. Nevertheless, the following steps will minimize negative gossip from infecting a positive culture.
Step 1: Company Policy to Combat Gossip
Your employee handbook should address gossip. The policy should acknowledge that the company does not intend to limit employee rights to talk about wages, hours, or working conditions as protected by the NLRA. The focus of the policy is on non-work-related issues.
Step 2: Keep the Door Open
Keeping communication transparent and open allows trust to grow organically. Employees will bring reports of gossip to you directly and you, as Human Resources, can address the behavior directly, nipping it in the bud.
Step 3: Address the Behavior Directly
When issues come to your attention, those who exhibit the behavior need to be told their behavior is not in line with the company’s code of conduct, and that further violations may result in disciplinary action. (More on this below.)
Step 4: Your Example is Your Best Tool
The best way to prevent gossip is to be a positive role model yourself. Never spread rumors, and avoid criticizing others. In fact, do the opposite: spread positive gossip. Leaders who demonstrate integrity and positivity inspire others to do the same.
What to Do If You Learn of an Employee Gossiping
Take immediate action when you learn of an employee spreading gossip. The following steps help eliminate gossip and coach others on how best to respond.
Step 1: Verify Harmful Gossip vs. Facts
An employee is within their rights to give their colleague a bit of background regarding the new boss, as long as it is professional. “Chris completely changed the marketing function. I am excited to see what he brings to the team” has a more professional tone than “Chris is on his third marriage. I don’t think someone like that can lead this team.”
When an employee files a claim of harmful gossip, have them make a written statement of the incident including word for word what was said by other employees and any other witnesses. Interview those witnesses and ask open-ended questions to allow them to give an account of what happened. An example: “We have received reports of gossip or rude remarks. Have you heard any remarks that may be harmful to someone?”
Step 2: Respond Quickly
When you receive reports of gossip in the office and verify that the gossip is harmful to an employee, those who have spread the gossip should be coached immediately on the importance of a positive culture and told that further violations may result in disciplinary action.
Step 3: Change the Subject
If someone gossips in front of you, bring up a work-related matter or even the weather. This will help prevent anyone else from being drawn into the gossip and allowing the negativity to spread.
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Ryan is an HR Director with four years of experience and three masters degrees. One accomplishment he is proud of is the design and launch of a learning and development program for 800+ employees.
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