Managing Office Gossip

Office gossip and the office grapevine are as old as the workplace and as difficult to manage as the people and processes in them. Human beings can rarely resist "spilling the beans" when they hear a juicy tidbit of information, whether it's about work or a colleague.

In some offices, telling tales is a well-refined sport nearly all workers play. If information is power, then gossip is a power play that gets perfected by the most savvy, and often the most ambitious, people at work.

This doesn't mean all gossip and rumors are bad. Psychologists point out that sharing information with co-workers and colleagues can actually be a bonding process showing others they are included and vital members of a group. Gossip and rumors can also be used to keep members of a tightly knit group together and operating by the same value system or set of standards.

But when rumors and gossip are damaging, they need to be dealt with firmly and swiftly by management and human resource professionals before they harm reputations, damage careers, or destroy morale and productivity among workers.

Getting control of gossip and gossipers

You won't be able to stop all the gossip and rumor-spreading behavior in your organization. Some workers engage in this kind of activity almost as a hobby or a diversion from what they're supposed to be doing.

What can a manager do? First, set an example of the kind of behavior that's expected and following the rules:

When you have something to say to or about someone, do it directly
When you hear others gossiping, intervene as appropriate

Direct approach

However, some people are a little dense about getting the message. If there's a persistent gossip in the office who tries to engage you in conversations about other people, you have a number of choices:

1. Walk away Don't respond, lecture or admonish, just turn and leave.
2. Take control of the conversation Maneuver the conversation to a work-related or neutral subject.
3. Shut it down Use definitive, emphatic language such as "I am not comfortable talking about ___________."
4. Explain your own personal code Let the gossip know why you won't listen to whatever it is that's up by saying, "I don't like talking about other people, because I don't like other people talking about me." This is a sure-fire conversation stopper.
5. Expose the gossip: This one will take some real courage, but it will usually do more to stop gossip in its tracks than anything else. Reply to the gossip, "I hadn't heard that about _____. Let's go ask him/her about it."

In most cases, it's probably wise to start with a more subtle reaction to the gossiper's information. You can then escalate responses depending on their reaction.

It's been said that managing office gossip is like trying to hold smoke in your hand. While that's impossible, it's also important not to fan the flames creating the smoke. Managing rumors and gossip will go a long way toward creating a civil and productive workplace. It will also make your organization a place where employees feel safe, secure, and valued.

SESCO Management Consultants is available to assist with your human resource issues. You may contact us by phone at 423-764-4127 or by email at sesco@sescomgt.com.