Overworking and mismanagement aside, there’s another force that can rip your team apart from the inside: gossip. With just a few words, feelings are hurt, reputations tarnished, and the team divided. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or a newly hired member of the team, it’s important to call out gossip when it starts, and develop practices to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.
Gossip can have varying definitions. Some believe gossip must be false, others say gossip must be defamatory. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as, “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true.”
So whether it’s malicious or harmless is beside the point, as long as the conversation involves someone else and is not yet verified, it can be considered gossip.
Distinguishing gossip from casual conversation
So what separates gossip from ordinary conversation?
For one, gossip has to be about someone else. So employees talking about their own problems do not count as gossip. Nor does it count when one talks about somebody present during the conversation. Typically, gossip has to be about someone who is unaware of the conversation.
Second, gossip is generally untrue, or at the very least, based on unconfirmed rumor. Discussing an employee’s promotion or severance without the chance to speak directly to that person or the manager falls under gossip.
As we mentioned, gossip isn’t always malicious. Sometimes what starts off as an innocent remark can quickly turn into a scathing critique or early judgment. For example, congratulating Jane on her pregnancy may seem like a kind act, until you find out it was only gossip, and you’re left in complete embarrassment.
The effects and consequences of gossip
- Gradual disintegration of trust and respect. This is by far the most damaging effect of gossip. Any team that hopes to work effectively together must be founded on mutual trust and respect for one another. The moment gossip begins to circulate, it can be difficult to know who to rely on.
- Loss of reputation. Building a reputation can take a lifetime, and reducing it to nothing can take only a few minutes. And it’s not just the reputation of the subject of the gossip, or the person gossiping, but the reputation of the entire team.
- Decreased productivity. When teammates are gossiping instead of working, productivity is greatly reduced. When morale suffers from especially damaging gossip, productivity reduction is even worse.
- Team division. Instead of moving as a single unit, team members begin to take sides on a matter and becoming increasingly hostile to one another. This can make it difficult to accomplish what used to be simple tasks.
- Unintended consequences. Discussing Will and Sarah’s engagement before it’s announced may seem innocuous, but it could also lead down a dangerous path, resulting in needless discussions with HR, strange looks from other team members, and so on.
How to manage gossip in the workplace
State clearly in the employee handbook and in person that gossip and spreading rumors is strictly prohibited. Better to take preventative measures than punitive action. Don’t just settle for including it in company literature, it should be an actively repeated concept in the company culture.
Set training guidelines and examples
Many people are still unaware of what counts as gossip and what counts as a harmless conversation. Educate the team by providing examples and clear definitions. Bring in an HR representative to discuss gossip and related matters to the whole team.
Create opportunities for healthy discussion
The zero-tolerance policy shouldn’t prevent the team from having constructive conversations about superiors. Make sure there are opportunities for team and manager feedback when possible. Doing so may even reduce the need for gossip.
Keep work and personal life separate
Set an example for others. Whenever gossip comes up, make an excuse to get back to work, or call it out when you hear it. Prevent yourself from sharing sensitive information and others will learn to do the same.
Focus on improving employee health
Gossip tends to be the byproduct of a larger issue- whether it’s boredom at work, issues with a coworker, or personal problems deflected onto others. One of the best things a manager can do is to ensure their team is both physically and mentally healthy, with enough breaks between tasks, and a balance between work and home life. Read our previous blog post, Low-Cost Ways To Encourage Better Employee Health for more ideas.
The impact of gossip in the workplace
For all the steps you will take to prevent gossip, it will inevitably happen. A small amount may be normal, even healthy for the team to create a sense of camaraderie. But the moment someone is hurt or tension flares up, actions need to be taken to address those involved, educate the team, and prevent it from happening in the future.
If you’re ever in doubt about whether something is gossip or not, just leave it out of the conversation. You have more to lose and little to gain from gossiping about your team.
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