For many employees, connecting with friends and coworkers is a big part of the appeal of coming to work. In a healthy workplace, colleagues feel interested in each others’ lives and excited to share news with one another.
But, as we all know, employee communication can take a turn for the worse if employees begin spreading rumors, targeting certain employees with behind-the-back complaints, or simply breeding a culture of mistrust and negativity by always complaining and speculating.
The best managers know how to differentiate damaging gossip from more innocuous forms of workplace banter, and they make an effort to root out the underlying causes of gossip so they can eliminate it completely. If toxic gossip isn’t addressed, it can do serious and even permanent damage to your workplace culture.
The first thing that managers and HR reps need to understand is that employees have a legal right to discuss workplace issues and problems — including their pay — with each other at work. This kind of communication is protected by section seven of the National Labor Relations Act.
Any rules or policies that inadvertently limit this kind of communication or speech in the name of cutting down on workplace gossip can be problematic from a legal standpoint.
However, there are effective ways to clearly identify what kind of behavior you consider to be “gossip” so that you can distinguish it from friendly news sharing or legally protected fraternizing.
The main thing that sets gossip apart from these other forms of communication is that it makes other employees feel bad — unwelcome, alienated, targeted — or aims to damage their reputation. In this way, gossip falls into the same type of discouraged behaviors as bullying, rudeness, and harassment.
Any type of messaging, talk, or communication that makes employees feel this way should be against your company’s policies. And it’s worth noting that this behavior should be against company policy whether it happens live at the office or online.
As we wrote in our post How HR Should Deal with New Social Media Platforms, courts have continued to hold employers responsible for employee harassment, regardless of whether that harassment takes place on-site in the office, or online via email, chat message, or social media post.
Policies should clarify that bad behavior is bad behavior, regardless of where it happens. Employees should understand that even private messages can be used as evidence in a harassment investigation if an employee shows them to a manager.
The costs of gossip in the office
A little complaining about the boss is to be expected in any workplace. But if the complaints turn into unfounded accusations, bullying, or speculation that causes serious disruption to the workplace, it starts to have major repercussions.
Here are just a few of the consequences of toxic gossip in the office:
Lost productivity: As anyone who has ever had a rumor spread about them knows, being the target of rumors and gossip makes it really hard to concentrate. It’s stressful and distracts from the other work you have to do. It also disrupts and destroys relationships that you need to keep healthy in order to get your job done well. And you can certainly bet that all of that stress and distraction hurts productivity.
Lack of engagement: Too many rumors and gossip can erode employees’ trust in managers and leaders. When employees are confused about what direction leaders are actually taking, for example, confusion and divisiveness can follow. For example, if there are unfounded rumors that layoffs are coming, it may cause people to check out mentally or even look for better jobs — regardless of whether the predicted layoffs have any basis in reality.
Higher employee turnover: Hurt feelings, unfounded rumors, and a toxic work environment that result from too much workplace gossip can all cause your best employees to leave for greener pastures. Employee turnover is always expensive thanks to hiring costs and lost knowledge. And without your best employees, you may find that your organization is unable to keep up with competitors.
Putting a stop to workplace gossip
Not all types of gossip come from ill-intentioned busybodies at work. Some gossip comes about because employees are feeling anxious and feel that they don’t have any other resources outside of speculation. That’s why before you take any steps to rectify gossip, you have to identify its root causes.
Pay attention to the type and topics of the rumors that tend to circulate around the office.
If the gossip is personal and targets other employees, you may have a case of harassment or bullying on your hands — or simply an employee who is creating a toxic work environment with their negative energy. If you can figure out which individuals are spreading these rumors, you’ll have to remind them of the behavioral standards in the employee handbook and escalate the issues as necessary.
But if the gossip is more about the direction of the company, or things like hiring decisions, new policies, or potential layoffs, the responsibility for the rumors may ultimately lie with company leaders.
Either employees have reason to believe that leaders won’t be transparent about their actions and motivations, or they don’t feel comfortable asking directly about the issues they’re wondering about. After all, when employees don’t know what will happen to them or their jobs, they’re likely to guess and share those guesses with their colleagues.
It’s all about culture
Regardless of the root cause of the rumors flying around your office, the solution is usually a healthy dose of empathy.
Employees who appreciate the feelings of others and know what it means to act respectfully won’t spread hurtful rumors. And leaders who are truly in touch with what their employees are thinking and feeling and act in their best interests can inspire confidence instead of rumor-producing anxiety.
You don’t have to leave this to chance. Good employers hire people who exhibit strong empathy, and they also train both managers and employees on how to respond when confronted with harmful gossip or rumor spreading. The best training programs also give employees a chance to practice those responses in training before they’re confronted with the scenario in real life.
Good employers train both managers and employees on how to respond when confronted with harmful gossip or rumor spreading.
Training helps employees make changes in their daily behavior, which eventually adds up to a culture of civility that stands the test of time.
If you’re looking for a professional partner to work with your entire organization to curb bad behavior and encourage good ones, please reach out to us at ELI. We work with organizations of all sizes to lay the foundations for a civil workplace culture.
We’ve launched Civil Treatment® Workplace to help your organization achieve its best results aligned with your mission, vision and values. Prompted by client feedback, changes in the workforce, and enhanced learning strategies, the program expands from a one-time event to an ongoing learning experience.