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A Manager’s Viewpoint

Gossiping in the workplace

(Those who gossip to you will gossip about you)
/ 04:51 AM November 13, 2016

Aling Carmen was the most popular woman in our neighborhood in my student days.  She loved to regale her sari-sari store customers with all the happenings in our barangay.  We loved to hang around in her store for the latest ‘news’ in the neighborhood and, of course, we could also buy our cigarettes, soft drinks, and rum on credit.

Society, high and low, is fascinated, if not, obsessed with the private lives of other people. Tabloids survive on gossipy news.  Even regular broadsheets have well-read columns about juicy news of celebrities.  Prime time TV news is interspersed with the hottest tidbits about movie celebrities.

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Gossip, by the way, is not gender specific.  It does not thrive only in beauty parlors or unisex salons but also in barber shops. Kwentong Barbero or Kutsero did not come into our common lexicon for nothing. Gossips also thrive in the workplace. Is this good or bad?

Gossips in the workplace occur not only in the cafeteria during lunch or coffee breaks, in the locker or washrooms, but also in the office cubicles during working time. Controlling gossips gets a little more difficult with the advent of the internet and text messaging in the mobile phones.

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Engaging in gossips decreases productivity and also creates conflict or friction among employees. Conflicts diminish the trust level among employees and adversely affect teamwork.  It may also cause employee turn-over. An employee who shuns gossips may feel ostracized and not part of the group.  He/she may feel uncomfortable, unhappy, and the ‘odd-man out.’ Consequently, he/she may just decide to quit and find work elsewhere.

Can management stop or discourage gossips?  It’s certainly impossible to have a gossip-free workplace.  Gossip is part of the fabric of society.  But given the negative impact a gossip may have, there are certain steps management may take to minimize employee gossip.   First, let’s classify gossips into two: one is gossip regarding an employee while the second is gossip about the company.

Gossips about co-employees are mostly negative. It is insidious. It is another form of violence which can be dangerous because it can cause pain, harm, or damage to the reputation or character of one who is the object of the gossip.

Your Code of Conduct could spell out clearly that malicious gossiping against a co-employee is unacceptable behavior as it causes discord, besmirches one’s reputation and is, therefore, subject to disciplinary action.

Gossip about the company or work-related matters is another thing. This can be due to one’s concern about job security, changes that disrupt work relationship and the like.  “I’ve heard from a reliable source that there will be a reduction of employees to save on labor cost” “Is it true that our company is up for sale or merger with another company?”

A good communication system is the antidote to this kind of gossiping. Rather than allowing speculation to turn into misinformation, communicating regularly with your employees can stop gossipers from distorting the news in the grapevine.

Gossips may not in all cases be considered bad.  An associate professor of Management at the University of Kentucky’s Links Center for Research on Social Networks in Business, wrote a thought-provoking article in the September 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, “It’s not ‘Unprofessional’ to Gossip at Work.”

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Professor Guiseppe Lablanca concedes that gossip often consists of hearsay, half-truths, and innuendos and can absorb a large amount of your staff’s time.  But he argues that gossip can be very helpful to people in organizations, especially when the flow of information from the top gets choked off, as often happens when companies are in crisis or undergoing change.

Lablanca says: “You can’t simply ban gossip.  In our research, we find that 96% of employees admit to engaging in gossip at work.  Directives to halt gossip usually backfire and generate more gossips.  Too often organizations try to squelch it without addressing the problems that are generating it.  Negative gossip is a symptom of a larger organizational issue.  Focus on resolving it, increasing communication and showing that the information you give is truthful.  Those actions would have more impact. And you shouldn’t use performance appraisals to try to suppress negative gossip – that won’t work either.”

Lablanca declares that when managers want us to avoid gossiping when we go to work, “they expect us to leave behind the emotional and social parts of who we are.  But we are unable to leave our humanity at the door.  We react to things emotionally, we form bonds with people, we gossip. To pretend otherwise makes things worse.”

Banning workplace gossip is like King Canute commanding the waves to stop. But it can be minimized with a well-pronounced company policy. A good communication system can squelch a negative gossip about the company.

(Author’s email address is: nolipayos@gmail.com)

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