Yanking out the Grapevine: How to Deal with Gossip at Work

By Lacey Conner, SHRM-CP on Dec 13, 2019
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“I saw Todd slip something in his drink at lunch today.”

“Did you hear that Margaret is pregnant? Apparently, she hasn’t even told her husband yet. Sounds like an accident to me.”

“Trevor’s rash is so disgusting. He disappears into the bathroom once a day with a bottle of ointment. Yuck!”

“Have you noticed that Amy has gained weight recently? She must not be taking that divorce too well.”

“Yeah, I saw Eric looking at people on a dating app yesterday. He’s cheating for sure.”

There are few workplace problems as difficult to squash as gossip. It seems naturally engrained in our brains that we excite in discussing the matters of others in private little asides with our confidantes, knowing even then that there is a risk of the information getting out. But gossip and work don’t mix well. Gossip can damage relationships between employees who need to work together as a team. It can lower morale, increase overall anxiety, reduce productivity, and increase turnover. Gossip can even erode trust in managers, who are supposed to make the workplace a safe environment. Ignoring workplace gossip—especially in its more hateful forms—can be a fatal mistake for your business.

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When is Gossip Okay?

Before you go and start disciplining everyone who discusses someone else in the breakroom, there are a few things to consider. The first is that gossip is not always a sign of an unhealthy work environment. In an interview with SHRM Online, Rieva Lesonsky, CEO of GrowBiz, says that if the current gossip isn’t malicious, then “it shows camaraderie among your team.” She goes on to mention that sometimes gossip “is a harbinger of something that’s true, and it makes you aware of something, as a manager, that you need to work on.” So, gossip can be a helpful tool for figuring out what your company needs to prove. However, you still need to identify which topics of gossip might be hurtful to other employees—which is when gossip can cross a line.

Your stance on gossip needs to also be tolerant of normal workplace “griping.” This includes general complaints about working conditions or management choices. These sorts of complaints might be negative and harmful to morale, but many of these complaints will be protected under the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits businesses from restricting employees’ ability to discuss wages, hours, and working conditions. Instead, consider this type of gossip the sort that you can listen to and learn from, resolving to make pertinent changes to your business in the future.

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6 Steps To Deal With Gossip at Work

Once you’ve decided that the gossip going on at your company is unhealthy and harmful, there are several steps you can take to root it out. We’ve listed a handful of tips below that will help you out.

1. Look for Patterns

If gossip is a regular problem at your business, one of your first objectives should be to see if the gossip usually comes from a specific employee. While you can try to talk to every employee and trace back who told what to whom, and when, that task can become unwieldy after a while. One method that can assist you, though, is paying attention to patterns in the gossip. Does the gossip usually center on a specific employee? Investigate who has known issues with that employee. Is gossip more of a problem with certain shifts than others? Narrow your search to employees who usually work that shift.

2. Start an Education Initiative About the Harms of Gossiping 

Most employees ultimately don’t want to hurt their coworkers’ feelings, so a simple reminder about how gossiping can have unintended consequences should have an impact. Education programs on gossip sometimes are as helpful as anti-gossiping policies, if not more. 

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3. Lead by Example

Tell this to your managers and supervisors: the best way to foster respectfulness in the workplace is to model it for others. This is also true for gossip. The leaders in your organization need to abstain from negative gossip and quell it once it starts. Before long, your other employees should notice the atmosphere of respect and refrain from gossiping themselves. 

4. Make Company Values Known

All employees in your company need to know what your company values. Whether it’s through an anti-gossiping policy or through an education program, be clear about what your company’s expectations are for employee behavior. Employees stand behind companies with values. The best way to regulate a workforce is to have it self-regulate, and there are few better ways to accomplish this than through shared values. 

5. Policy Needs to Be Precise

Should you choose to enact anti-gossiping policies with your business, be careful not to impede on rights protected by the National Labor Relations Act that we mentioned earlier. To re-emphasize, an employee does not have the right to limit employee speech about wages, hours, or working conditions. Anti-gossiping policies need to take this into account and specify that it only concerns gossip about non-work-related topics. It would be a good idea to list some off-limit topics, too, such as sexual activity, health concerns, or weight.

6. Get an Outside Eye

You might be too close to individuals spreading gossip within your organization to make sound judgments. Also, if the issue has been avoided long enough, gossip might have wound its way into your workplace’s culture. In these situations, it might help to include some additional perspectives. Turn to non-biased parties with the expertise to resolve these issues. Option A: Axcet HR Solutions.

RELATED: 6 Keys to Effective Employee Discipline >>

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