Anyone who watches soap operas (Coronation Street is my favourite), shows like Desperate Housewives or reality television knows that gossip is a great way to drive a fictional plot forward. In fact, without gossip, TV would be a wasteland of talk shows, game shows, sports, documentaries and news. (And I don’t mean celebrity news!) Heck, without gossip, our lives would probably be far less interesting—at least until we found something worthwhile to talk about.
Does gossip at work function in the same way? Of course it does; but unlike on TV, there’s no writer behind the scenes to control the effects. That is, on TV, the writers use gossip to let characters know what others might be like or might be doing so the characters can make choices that will lead to the next chapter of the story. But the writers already know what happens in the next chapter—they control the characters’ responses. In the workplace, gossipers use gossip in the same ways: to offer opinions about what others are like or how they behave. The difference is that in reality there’s no way to control how others will respond to gossip.
You know what gossip is: talking about others—often belittling, mostly rumour—behind their backs, sometimes with a specific intention, such as making the victim appear less valuable to others.
You probably also have some idea of the possible negative effects of gossip:
- Lost productivity and wasted time
- Erosion of trust and morale
- Anxiety among employees as rumours circulate without any clear information as to what is fact and what isn’t
- Growing divisiveness among employees as people “take sides”
- Hurt feelings and reputations
- Jeopardized chances for the gossipers’ advancement as they are perceived as unprofessional
- Attrition as good employees leave the company due to the unhealthy work atmosphere
Gossip isn’t always negative or malicious—I’m not talking about juicy celebrity or sports news here—but any time workers spread information, whether false or true, about another without that person’s knowledge, the gossipers open up the possibility of harm. And no matter the intention, or the feelings of power that go along with gossip, no individual can control where that gossip will lead.
But what can you do about it? What workplace doesn’t have a few rumours floating around? And is it all so harmful? Let me know what you think, and I’ll talk about some ways to reduce the harm from workplace gossip in the next few days.
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Assistant Editor