Putting a Lid on Harmful Gossip

Every workplace has some amount of “workplace chatter” among employees. But when this idle, trivial talk turns into malicious gossip about coworkers, management or confidential workplace matters, the employer can do something about it.

Gossip Worldwide

Gossiping — from the idle chatter to malicious rumor-mongering — is a workplace activity throughout the world. For example, an occupational psychologist at the School of Nursing at London’s City University interviewed 100 nurses and found some spent up to four hours a day gossiping. Many of those interviewed said they gossiped to let off steam or to ease stress.

Psychologist Katherine Waddington called gossiping “a safety valve” and said it can be “very therapeutic and makes people feel better.”

The Financial Gazette, Zimbabwe’s and Southern Africa’s leading business newspaper, carried an article titled “Gossiping at work is harmful to business.” The article stated: “Lies, rumors, and office gossip have always been an entrenched part of the workscape.”

Thanks to the Internet and e-mail, it’s possible to spread ugly words as fast as a nasty virus. However, left unchecked, a rumor can quickly spiral out of control. It can sap energy and productivity.

Workers need to know that malicious personal gossip is not acceptable. Attacking other employees out of boredom, dislike or for political gain can create tension, animosity and organizational problems. It’s also not fair to the victim. Chronic offenders must be confronted swiftly. Those who spend an inordinate amount of time gossiping should know the behavior is not acceptable.

There’s a difference between idle chatter and harmful gossip. Idle chatter involves discussions about parties, fishing and hunting, or trips to the mall. Gossip is conversation based on rumor, or talk of a private, sensational or intimate nature. Gossip can lower morale and decrease productivity.

If gossiping among employees is becoming malicious and hurtful, consider putting a policy in your handbook that strongly prohibits it in the workplace.

For example:  “The employer will not tolerate conversation between employees in the workplace that is damaging to coworkers, clients, management, visitors or the public. Violation of this policy will result in disciplinary action.”

Keep in mind the following before you discipline for gossiping:

1. Is the conversation affecting workplace performance? Example:Mary tells co-workers Ted is having an affair. Now his co-workers don’t want to work with him and Ted can’t concentrate on his work.

2. Confronting someone about gossip is a strong accusation. Be sure when you discipline, it’s based on fact, not rumor. And be sure you are disciplining for behavior which has an adverse effect in the workplace. Example:Because of Mary’s comments, co-workers don’t want to work with Ted.

If you have a gossip problem, act immediately. It can get out-of-hand and lead to fights and conflicts between employees.

This could even lead to a Workers’ Compensation claim. A Michigan Court of Appeals once ruled on such a case and stated: “…where the subject of the dispute is not work-related, but is caused by the friction and strain of proximity imposed by the workplace,” the employer could be held responsible.

At the least, malicious gossiping among employees can result in lowered productivity and poorer service to customers and clients.

Sample Conduct Policy

Employees will behave in a courteous and respectful manner with co-workers, management, customers, clients and the public.

When you interact with co-workers, with management, with customers, clients and prospective customers, and with the public, you will conform your conduct to generally accepted standards of good behavior.

The employer will not tolerate employee conduct which creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. An employee who intimidates, is hostile to, or is offensive to another employee, a customer, client or prospective customer of the employer, to an officer, manager or supervisor, or to the public with whom the employer deals, will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

In your comments and conversations with others, avoid insinuations, quibbling, half-truths, untruths, and unfounded rumors. Talking and conversations with others in the workplace which is hurtful, harmful or malicious to other employees, customers, clients, management, or visitors is not acceptable and will result in disciplinary action.

Do your part to maintain a friendly, congenial and courteous atmosphere in our workplace at all times. Do your part to contribute to an atmosphere which is pleasant and productive, and which makes our workplace a comfortable and enjoyable place for all employees, our customers, clients, and visitors.


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