Gossip and rumours in the workplace are counter-productive and create difficulties for all managers. If not handled correctly, gossip can lead to accusations of bullying, blast stress levels through the roof and cause the loss of good staff. Kate Kerrison reports.
With the Oxford Dictionary defining gossip as casual conversation it is not surprising that gossip has long remained unchallenged as a form of destructive workplace behaviour.
Phoebe* was the subject of gossip in a fast-paced publishing house and saw first-hand how unproductive it could be for both the individual and the organisation.
The gossip began after establishing a relationship with a colleague, over the age of consent, unattached and not outside any company policy on such matters, which we attempted to keep confidential in its initial stages, she says.
Outside of work hours and away from the office, a colleague spied us together, setting off office gossip that took on a life of its own and began to impact on day-to-day office life.
It was a workplace where internal and external competition was fierce and strong intra-office rivalries had formed, along with internal cliques dividing the troops. Management had taken no action.
The gossip just compounded what was an already stressful, deadline-driven role, and added layers of complexity to day-to-day office life that distracted from the job at hand.
I wasn’t able to perform to the best of my ability due to work stress, and that, at times, dented my professional confidence, which in turn affected my overall sense of self.
I ended up leaving the organisation: I wouldn’t say gossip was the main reason but it certainly made the decision to go easier.
And Phoebe says hers was not an isolated case: People’s out-of-office lives seemed fair game all-round.
For Dr Peter Cotton, one of Australia ‘s leading specialists in organisational behaviour, Phoebe’s situation is a common one.
In my view, if there is a significant level of rumour and gossip in the workplace typically that will be reflected in engagement and morale problems. People will tend to be more negative and focus on things that are not constructive, Dr Cotton says.
If they are gossiping or feel they are being gossiped about, they are not fulsomely involved in their work.
It can cause significant problems organisationally. It can create a slippery slope an environment where more negative behaviour is tolerated and that then becomes a precursor to more serious issues such as workplace violence and harassment.
However, Dr Cotton sees gossip as distinct from bullying. He says gossip is looked at more as a subtle kind of counter-productive behaviour.
Organisationally, at the moment, in terms of academic literature, there is a lot of focus on low-level mistreatment and incivility.
Denise Sykes, a Senior Consultant with management consultancy, The Nous Group, specialises in managing the workplace climate as well as the workplace culture.
I have come out of the workers’ compensation environment and I have seen a significant number of claims arise over bullying. Without exception, there has been an element of gossip, Sykes says.
It relates to unmanaged behaviour in the workplace. It is not always stated as unacceptable, so it goes unchecked.
She says that when people gossip, they are bringing their own personal agendas to the office and are forgetting their contract of employment.
When people gossip they forget they are employees of an organisation and they are behaving unprofessionally. They are having a personal impact. It really is a risk to health and safety.
Sykes has been working with businesses to define what is acceptable behaviour in the workplace, and what is not, and argues that behaviour in the workplace should be managed the same way as companies manage their relationships and interaction with clients, customers and the external environment.
It is about looking at these counter-productive workplace behaviours like gossip, favouritism, cynicism and negative talk; the things you would not normally define.
I have categorised them as risks and applied an audit philosophy to the process. If they were physical risks you would say it was an unsafe workplace.
Given her background in the workers’ compensation area, Sykes has spent time analysing the affects of counter-productive workplace behaviours on organisations. A correlation is clear between the workplace climate and the time it takes people to come back to work.
If they are treated with courtesy and respect in the workplace, they are more likely to return to the workplace.
And she says this is an issue much broader that the workplace.
There is a lower standard of behaviour in society generally. People are in a hurry and they forget the basic things. They are so focused on output that they forget about the inputs, and part of that is behaviour and manners.
These are very old-fashioned words, I know. But where there is an unhealthy workplace, people will do anything to remove themselves from it just like Phoebe.
At the extreme, things like gossip can result in people leaving the workplace with a psychological injury.
Dr Cotton says the most extreme case he has seen was in relation to a woman where a number of completely false rumours were spread about a particular liaison.
It became like a lynching mob and she was removed from the organisation. She was an extremely hard-working and professional person who took this very seriously; it had a massive impact on her life. She now has a diagnosable anxiety disorder, he says.
Sykes, too, recalls a case in a call centre where the business had extremely strict guidelines of how to behave towards customers and callers on the phone, but no rules when it came to how to treat each other.
There was one guy who would come in and refuse to speak to anyone in the office until he had his morning coffee. It was a daily thing. But if the phone rang he would be incredibly polite. That is just purely unprofessional.
Sykes says that gossip often starts with an individual and then the group takes over.
The manager needs to be responsible; management needs to take the responsibility. The longer it goes on, the more normal the behaviour seems.
Culture statements tend to be very vague about behaviour. Values are ascribed and there are statements about the areas that are regulated, such as discrimination and bullying. But there is no real detail on behaviour.
Gossip can be defined in a number of ways. It is certainly part of a blame culture, which in turn can have a real impact on productivity, absenteeism, workplace injuries, stress-related claims, and staff disengagement and dissatisfaction.
This ties into Dr Cotton’s argument that gossip and other destructive behaviours are linked to low morale and engagement.
Typically you would expect gossip to upset and distress people, but if it is ongoing it can significantly affect turnover and loyalty. The key issue is that if you let it go, it will create an environment that fosters much more serious problems.
Dr Cotton says that rumour and gossip can certainly be driven by an individual, but if a team as a whole has low morale then it is likely to be a whole group issue.
If you have identified a person who is driving gossip and rumour the only way to deal with it is head-on. You have to clarify expectations of behaviour standards, he says.
You would be telling the person to desist forthwith or they would face further disciplinary action.
But if it is a group, management should address it in a team environment; maybe as part of a normal team meeting. It really needs to be put in the context of the team not functioning properly.
Gossip is not like stealing, it is not black and white. It is more subtle and harder to punish but it should not go unchecked, he says.
* name changed
The question box
Neil Tilley, Managing Director of Upstream Technology, says his business has worked hard to address issues such as workplace gossip.
The rumour mill sometimes works overtime here. Small things get blown up into big issues just because people hear half the story and make incorrect assumptions about the rest.
Tilley says, As businesses grow, it becomes hard to maintain the level of communication we once had with staff.
One of the things we’ve done is have a box in our kitchen called ‘Neil’s question box’.
The deal we have with the staff is that you can write any question you want anonymously and put it in that box, and we will read it verbatim at the next staff meeting and we will answer the question ‘live’.
Some really tough questions come out of that box, Tilley says.
One question, for example, was about the company reading staff email. This followed the counselling of an employee over an inappropriate email.
Tilley was able to explain that it wasn’t the company’s policy to read personal email, but in certain circumstances in this case a supervisor had to track down an important client communication while the worker was off sick it may need to.
The rumour mill can get carried away: ‘They’re reading all our email’, says Tilley.
By having the question box you can confront these issues in an open and honest fashion.
Sometimes, if our HR manager senses an issue brewing she’ll pop a question in the box.
It’s a really powerful tool; it means everybody knows every issue is open for discussion.