Office Gossip: An HR Challenge
"Lies, rumors, and office gossip have always been an entrenched part of the workscape," says Samuel Greengard, in his article, "Gossip Poisons Business: HR Can Stop It," and if you've worked in an office, you know that's true. For some, it's just static, but it can get out of control, be harmful to the target, and cause risk for management.
Gossip is a human propensity. Part of being social and being human, is to take an intense interest in what other's are doing. Some gossip is relatively benign; other forms are malicious and can run right into slander and liable.
Unchecked, it's not going to go away and can be disruptive to productivity and morale.
THE NATURE OF GOSSIP
"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. "However, even seemingly casual remarks between coworkers can disrupt an otherwise peaceful office."
Office gossip generally centers around which employees management is dating, and who's about to be get fired, transferred, promoted or demoted. Particularly malicious gossip is used for personal or political gain within the organization. Any form can open management up to significant liability because employees who perceive themselves in a hostile environment can go on to assume they're being discriminated against.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
What can management do to curtail this destructive mobbing behavior?
First of all lets look at what makes it probable. It's most likely to occur when employees are not informed, and when they have too much time on their hands. When something's going on and management doesn't supply information, people fill in the void with speculations and assumptions.
It's also likely to occur is when workers have too much time on their hands. When, as a kid, I started making trouble for myself and my sisters because I had nothing to do, my grandmother would give me something constructive to do (a chore, a book to read), saying, "An idle mind is the devil's workshop."
Management must also make it clear that malicious personal gossip is not acceptable. "It is essential for companies to set appropriate boundaries and a tone of mutual respect," says Jane Weizmann, senior consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide.
This can be accomplished through Aspiration Statements - not just saying what's not acceptable, but by coming out and saying what is expected: dignity and respect. No exceptions.
Management can also work to build a culture that's supportive rather than overtly competitive. Putting proactive emotional intelligence (see www.susandunn.cc) and anti-mobbing programs (see www.webstrategies.cc/ mobbing.htm) in place show positive intent. To see an excellent pro-respect statement by the State of Oregon, Dept. of Environment Quality ANTI-MOBBING policy NO. 50.110, go here: www.mobbing-usa.com/resources1.html.
Coaching and/or counseling should be available for both victim and instigator.
Rumors must be dealt with immediately. Meet with instigator[s] and victim together, or call the instigator in to confront them. Confront chronic offenders. If you don't know who they are, you're in denial, because everyone else in the company knows who they are.
One thing to do in your awareness/education program is to ask people to check through their emails and see if they think they've been gossiping. Unlike the spoken word, email is documentable.
It's important to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Written policies and procedures turn to dust and smoke the first time management fails to confront the problem in actuality. It's normal to test the limits, and if action isn't taken when stated policy is transgressed, credibility for that policy goes out the door, and so does credibility about every other policy.