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"Based on our obser- vations, it appears employees now patiently chew their fingernails to stubs"

How to Completely Eliminate Office Gossip
(Yeah, right)


by R. Summerhurst and J. Talbott


Hello, and welcome to Silencio Inc., a workplace that prides itself on having completely eliminated its office gossip.

Since eliminating office gossip there is much good news—well, actually, no news whatsoever. But, based on our observations, it appears employees now patiently chew their fingernails to stubs while awaiting the executive director’s semi-annual communiqués regarding possible office moves, layoffs, terminations, and promotions.

As well, we are pleased to announce that more employees have taken advantage of our employee assistance program. It seems that without informal feedback of where they stand in the pecking order, many employees are floundering—but we hope this will be corrected with the daily positive affirmations sent out from managers via email.

And, of course, the office gossips—those folks who, regardless of how far down they were on the chain of job titles or salary classification, always managed to be the informal centres of power—have all resigned since no amount of salary can compensate them for their loss of  influence and prestige.

Though we are basically happy with our zero tolerance approach, there are some downsides to eliminating gossip. Team work, for example, has taken a hit. It appears that the all too human need to form and create alliances, to socialize, and to give and receive praise and criticism, actually fostered the desire to work in groups. Without informal channels of office gossip, most employees keep quietly to their desks, but without the usual concern for how their work might actually affect others.

In fact, we were forced to make one exception to our zero tolerance rule on gossip. It appears that many HR professionals entered the field because they secretly wanted to be at the center of an organization’s dramas. Without foreknowledge of who is being forced to resign, which executive is bedding which employee, who is in line for promotion, and who is on stress leave, many of our HR people were forced to leave Silencio in search of juicier tidbits. Attracting and retaining quality candidates means we are forced to permit gossip—“professional discussion” in our parlance—within HR, provided it does not escape the department’s sound-proofed, steel-reinforced cage.

Tips on Handling Office Gossip

Of course, we understand that many organizations do not have the courage to implement the extreme measures that Silencio Inc. has undertaken to completely eliminate office gossip. So, instead, consider the following tips in handling gossip in your organization:

1.    Recognize that gossip is a universal human behaviour that we all engage in, and which serves a functional purpose for employees and organizations. Remember, many of us spend more time with our work colleagues than with our own families and that idle gossip sometimes helps to cement the bonds of collegiality.

2.    But, know that malicious or excessive gossip disrupts production, lowers morale, and often targets individual employees. In fact, gossip can cross the line into harassment or mobbing behaviours, and can become a health and safety or human rights issue.

3.    Understand that gossip can open employers up to liability. Employees who are targets of office gossip may sue, claiming constructive dismissal for not being adequately protected, or they may launch human rights complaints if their race, gender, religion, or another immutable personal characteristic has made them the target of gossip.

4.    Fill the void by communicating. Managers must set aside time to regularly deal with employees as a group, or one-on-one, to quickly reveal decisions—such as office reallocation, promotions, and layoffs—that employees tend to anxiously anticipate. Where questions arise, and employees are unable to approach managers for information, the gossip mill will start spinning.

5.    Inform employees that malicious gossip is not tolerated. For some employers this may mean going as far as introducing a policy, but for others it may suffice to have management pass on this expectation through meetings, counseling, or during annual reviews. Employees who are spreading malicious gossip should be warned that their behaviour is not acceptable and may ultimately lead to termination.

6.    Build a culture that is supportive and cooperative. Of course, this is easier said than done. But, where mutual respect is modeled by managers, and rewarded by promotions and commendations, an organization is less likely to have to cope with the severity of malicious gossip.

7.    Deal with rumours immediately. Create sessions with employees to clear the air. The more senior the management representative at these meetings, the more likely his or her pronouncements will squelch false or malicious rumours.

8.    Remind employees that their email communications are not private and may be recorded even after the delete button has been hit. This is standard practice now in many computer use policies, but it also reinforces the expectation that email is not a medium in which to gossip about fellow employees.

9.    Keep employees busy. Idle hands are the devil’s forked tongue, er…or something like that.




ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Bob Summerhurst is a Certified Business Coach, consultant and trained mediator. You can learn more about Bob through his website.

J. Talbott, LL.B., is a labour lawyer, consultant, and founder of the Ottawa firm, Labour Relations Consultants. He can be contacted below:

Contact Info

To find out information about their upcoming office gossip seminars, or to deliver a bit of juicy gossip, drop them a line by selecting the "Contact Us" buttons at the top or bottom of this page.

 


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Copyright 2003-2004 R. Summerhurst and J. Talbott. All rights reserved.
Except for personal use, no portion of this document may be printed, copied, or quoted at length without written permission.
Nothing in this article is intended as legal advice. Use at your own risk.