Office gossip has many forms, mostly bad, but it is management that sets the tone for any resulting good or evil. At its worst, office gossip is slanderous with appropriate penalties from termination to being sued for civil damages. Certainly the spreading of untruths is harmful to individuals and the work place culture. Office gossip in any form is a reflection of the manner in which management does or does not communicate with and / or support employees.
Workers look for control over their work output, recognition when deserved and security for their being and performance. Gossip in the workplace that is untrue undermines employee control, recognition and security. Most businesses have created written policies that address office gossip. However many businesses simply have policies on office gossip without an understanding how communication and processes either prevent or encourage office gossip.
What if the gossip is true? What if the president is having an affair with one of the sales people? What if the director indeed was arrested for drunken driving? What if the CEO tolerates senior management holing up in their offices with their cronies both tapping and feeding the gossip / rumor mill to protect their turf and / or smear rivals?
When a company culture is reticent to communications, is insensitive to processes that encourage performance output, employee recognition or job security, or tolerates bad character behavior, office gossip develops as employees feel left out of the organization, resent their management and lack confidence that the organization can compete for their long term employment security.
Most of the recent articles on office gossip target the problem as being the employee and in a few cases this may be true. However office gossip is a business cultural phenomenon and therefore the responsibility of management to prevent … not by hands off written policies but by accountable management behaviors that employees understand, respect and emulate. Key behaviors should be:
-Communicate regularly with a consistent positive message. Industry trends, organizational changes and why done, new products, promotions, retirements. Newsletters and emails are just a start. Quarterly meetings by group / team with senior level managers sharing brief overviews allowing Q&A from employees. If reasonable questions surface, commit to timely responses and make sure answered. If information to be shared is less than positive, be direct and honest without a deceiving spin.
-Actions speak louder than words. Management must be visible, accessible and approachable. Too many managers hide in their offices, avoid employees and are purposely evasive when asked reasonable questions. Insecurity and fear in managers is unfortunately common, a reflection of their bosses hiring cronies without performance accountability and reluctance to make necessary management changes. If management wants what best for the organization than for themselves, they must behave accordingly. Daily interaction with employees is a must, saying hello, asking how a project is going and listening sincerely. Survey after survey reflects a majority of managers feel they do the right things but the majority of employees say otherwise.
-Carrots work better than sticks. Managers often reluctant to acknowledge good performance for fear of not getting credit or spoiling employees. Employees consistently tell surveys they hear nine negatives to any one positive from their managers. Praise builds teams and esteem, criticism divides and tears down.
-Stop internal competitions as only divide departments, employees and distract from a needed focus on core competencies and customer needs. Performance measures and rewards should be based on what value delivered to clients, not the trickle down politics of management.
-Take personal accountability for your performance. Employment is a privilege not an entitlement. Your company must be competitive in value and price which means constant changes including work done and employees required. Add value and your employment is secure … just float along and your job will be vulnerable. Gossiping to deflect attention from you to those offending or not respected often backfires on the gossiper.
-Office gossip is often juicy, fun and sometimes insightful … however it is better to focus on listening skills and speak only when can add value to organization. Either you have confidence and respect for your management or you leave … sticking around to gossip is a waste of your time now and potential elsewhere.
-Avoid labeling fellow employees. Prejudice, bias, hard feelings, jealousies and the like bring no value to the organization and only strict poorly on offending employees … as well as being potentially libelous. Interesting to see someone label an employee as a "backstabber" but then what does that make them? As the old saying goes, be careful when you point a finger as then there are three more pointing back at you.
The presence of office gossip should be seen by management as a reflection of their performance and organizational effectiveness. The more prevalent gossip, no doubt the more human resource issues will surface and work performance sink. The problem should be addressed with more emphasis on clear, consistent communications and sincere management involvement with employees. Stated policies against office gossip with strong penalties only increase employee distrust and diminishes any respect as management appears insensitive to the needs of employee communications, understanding, recognition and mutual respect and security … encouraging, much less diminishing the gossip.
Change will be a constant in the workplace reflecting the marketplace and competition. Companies that embrace employees as sources of fresh ideas for products, services, enhancements, productivity, are reaping the rewards of change. Management insecurity and fears are a reflection of the leadership of owners, board and senior officers who fear change. Old economy command and control organizations are breading grounds for office gossip. New economy entrepreneurial organizations embrace change, moving so quickly, with incentised participants to a common cause, that there is simply no time for office gossip, just great performance numbers, job security and recognition from many quarters.
Management must accept accountability of their actions / inactions that create a culture where gossip can either thrive or diminish. Employees must accept responsibility for their livelihoods and deliver their best value where at, or change to an employer more appreciative of their deliverables.