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Workplace or soap opera? (Part 2)

Many people argue that workplace gossip is harmless and in fact brings co-workers together as friends, increasing trust and honesty. In 2000, the BBC reported, “Social psychologists say that contrary to popular belief, gossip is not an intrinsically bad thing”. In the same article, Nigel Nicholson, of the London Business School, said, “if an employee shares a titbit of information, this makes the confidante feel important, that they are someone to be trusted.”

That year, Judith Doyle, an industrial and employee relations researcher, found that “Gossip is the cement which holds organisations together”. Her report, New Community or New Slavery? The Emotional Division of Labour, for the United Kingdom’s Industrial Society (now The Work Foundation) called for reintroducing such British workplace traditions as the office tea lady and Friday night drinks for staff, to increase camaraderie (and perhaps let the gossip happen outside the office).

However, if you watch soaps, you know where this can lead. In the right (or wrong) hands, even a superficially innocuous complaint or tidbit of information can grow way out of proportion, leading often to disastrous (and on television, often humorous) results. On TV, there always seems to be someone waiting for that bit of incriminating evidence with the intention to wreak havoc on someone else’s life! One hopes this is not quite the case in real-life workplaces.

Robert Half International offers a breakdown of “Five common rumourmongers”—different types of office gossips—and how you can deal with them on careerbuilder.com. Some will take that bit of info and exaggerate it as they spread it around the office. Others might take it right to the top and tell on you for gossiping. Others might find in you a kindred spirit, and come to you with their daily complaints. To dodge situations like these, it’s good practice to act respectfully toward your co-workers and higher-ups, avoid personal discussions (particularly about others when they are not around), and speak positively of others when they do become the subject of discussion.

Beth Weissenberger, CEO of New York-based executive coaching firm The Handel Group, says, “I know that workplace gossip is the norm. The tendency to complain is human. So what’s the big deal?” And offers a clear and simple response: “Workplace gossip is unproductive. It breeds resentment and becomes a roadblock to effective communication and collaboration.”

Regardless of whether you believe gossip to be harmless or dangerous, it is a good idea to control it so that it never gets out of hand. Weissenberger suggests the extreme measure of a zero-tolerance policy, with a strong example from supervisors and executives. The idea is not to stifle employee communication, but rather to make everyone communicate honestly and take responsibility for their speech.

If the zero-tolerance approach seems too restrictive for your workplace, it is still a good practice for management and executives to set a strong example (and not just for workers; supervisors can easily get caught up in gossip as well). Here are some steps companies can take to reduce the risk of harmful gossip at work:

  • Communicate company news honestly, directly and promptly. This will eliminate the need for employees to speculate or spread rumours.
  • If a rumour reaches a supervisor, that supervisor should step in immediately to clear the air, whether the rumour is about the business or an individual. If the gossip involves personal information, the supervisor should talk to the persons involved in private.
  • Make sure that staff feel comfortable approaching higher-ups with questions, complaints and problems.
  • Encourage friendly and honest communications among all staff members, and remind them that there is nothing necessarily wrong with personal conversations, but gossip and rumour-mongering can be hurtful and lead to unintended negative consequences.

Some organizations, like the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, even include rumours in broad definitions of “workplace violence”. While this is not a legally binding definition in Canada, it should indicate the potential seriousness of the issue. Even if you don’t plan on banning gossip outright at the office, you might consider introducing a “gossip clause” in your code of conduct, or including it in your workplace violence and harassment prevention policy.

Yosie tells me that if an employer dismisses an employee for gossiping, and can prove that the gossip created a hostile work environment, meaning it turned into harassment or discrimination based on a prohibited ground under human rights legislation, then courts are likely to uphold the dismissal. On his website, employment lawyer Daniel A. Lublin provides an example of precisely that situation: a dissatisfied employee spoke disparagingly about her boss to her co-workers, even threatening the boss, and when the boss found out and fired the employee, the court supported him. Lublin notes, “The legal doctrine of cause for dismissal permits employers to immediately terminate employees without notice or severance when their conduct is so injurious that continued employment is no longer appropriate.” In this case, the employee’s “behaviour compromised the successful functioning of the business by creating an exceptional level of stress for all involved”.

I think it’s fair to say that most gossip doesn’t reach that level—thankfully, Canadian workplaces aren’t as cutthroat as Coronation Street! But employers should know what’s going on in their workplaces, the risks associated with that behaviour and things they can do to create a better environment for all—and that means keeping gossip innocent and reducing office speculation to celebrity relationships and sports team trades—and maybe what’s happening on Corrie.

How does gossip affect your workplace? Does it have positive as well as negative effects? Has gossip ever reached “soap opera” status where you work?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Assistant Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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