This article originally appeared on Builder.com’s sister site, TechRepublic.
All managers know they should discourage office gossip—it's just common sense. But eavesdrop on any after-work get-together and you'll invariably find a manager indulging in a hushed conversation about who said what to whom at some closed-door meeting, or even worse, who made a pass at the new clerk after a couple of drinks at last week's get-together.
The only explanation I've been able to come up with for why managers turn a blind eye is that many managers just don't know how much trouble gossip can cause. Warning labels such as "unprofessional," "unseemly," and "unproductive" just scratch the surface; gossiping can get you fired or even sued.
A slip of the tongue can land you in court
In many states, employers can be held liable for damages if they engage in any non-work-related communications that create a negative environment for an employee. (Many corporate policies adopt this stance, as well.) This blanket extends to any unprofessional language, such as "loser" or "jerk," you might use to describe someone's job performance to the employee's peers. Basically, all an employee needs to do is show that they had some cause to feel singled out for unduly negative treatment, and you've got trouble.
Go too far into the employee's personal business, and you could be facing a slander suit—particularly since office rumors always turn out to be largely untrue. And there's no statute of limitations on when an errant comment can catch up with you. Vent to your trusted lieutenant about what a "jackass" another team member is being, and you just gave the lieutenant an HR hand grenade that may come whizzing past your ear during a future conflict.
Kinda takes the fun out of water cooler chitchat, huh?
No gossip allowed
Of course, no matter what you do, your team members are going to talk about each other; it's human nature, after all. But you have to keep your own nose clean at all costs, and not just for self-preservation. If you are known to spread rumors about individuals, particularly about the people who work for you, you'll have absolutely no credibility when it comes time to admonish your employees for the same offense. And you need to correct this conduct. Sure, you're probably not going to get sued, but rampant gossip can be more hurtful to your team's ultimate health than a few missed deadlines or poorly documented code.
Here are a few simple (but not necessarily easy) tips I have found useful for wrangling office gossips:
Draw clear lines between "rumors," "griping," and "gossip": As I said earlier, your employees are going to talk about each other. You can actually channel some of this talk, particularly griping, into growth for your team. But there's nothing positive about gossip—it's just hurtful mudslinging that has no place in the workplace. One of the best ways to isolate and combat "gossip" is to clearly differentiate it from other kinds of office banter. Here are my working definitions for these terms:
- "Rumors" center on imminent institutional or team issues, such as layoffs and reorganizations. The best way to deal with rumors is to keep your team members informed about issues that affect them and to focus on the task at hand.
- "Griping" is a response to some work-related issue that irritates an employee. (If you're not doing your job, much of the griping will be about you.) The best way to deal with griping is to listen and explore options to remove any real obstacles that are getting between your employees and their goals.
- "Gossip" always deals with a topic that doesn't directly affect the people who are gossiping about it—it's either about what they heard somebody say to somebody else, or even worse, it’s about the interpersonal affairs of other employees. The only way to deal with gossip is to jump on it and stamp with two feet.
NEVER participate in gossip, no matter where you are or whom you are with. I know I said this already, but I can't emphasize this point enough. Even if you are having a dinner party at your house, gossip is off limits. It's a bad idea with your peers in management; with your employees, even your favorite employees, it's poison. Cultivate a reputation for being a nonparticipant in the office grapevine.
Don't be afraid to reprimand an employee for gossiping: This is probably the biggest single failure of managers in dealing with gossip. It's uncomfortable, sure, but don't just try to change the subject or (even worse) contradict the gossip on the spot—debate club rules just don't apply to this kind of stuff. Don't freak out, but don’t hesitate to let employees know that gossiping is hurtful, unproductive, and well below the company's standards of conduct. Say something like, "Don't you have enough stuff to worry about already?"
If things get too bad, try to find the root gossip that's driving this whole mess: Sometimes, gossip can circulate so long that it takes on a life of its own, and debunking it requires a little investigation on your part. I once had to deal with employees who wanted transfers because they were sure that a coworker was carrying on an affair with someone who, unbeknownst to the gossips, had moved to Taiwan three months earlier. Yes, it gets that stupid. I've found that this kind of particularly virulent gossip often originates from a single source—in this case, it was a coworker whose own sexual advances had been spurned. So what we actually had was a slanderous lie that was spreading through the grapevine. In most cases, you won’t find anything quite that vicious at the root of wild gossip; it’s often just a distortion or half-truth that can be cleared up with a little information.
Call in the big shots, if necessary: Painful experience has taught me to not dismiss the hurtful potential of rampant gossip. If you find yourself confronted with a group dynamic where gossip and innuendo have become gospel, ask your boss (and, yes, maybe even HR) for some pointers on how to handle the situation. At the least, you'll get the matter on record, in case you become the new target of the gossip.
Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRepublic.com and ITBusinessEdge.com.