Nip That Talk

By: Barbara Bowes

Yes, spring is finally here. Yet, while it’s certainly time for celebration, for some unknown reason, I recently found myself thinking of dandelions and weeds instead of spring and beautiful, colourful flowers. On reflection, it occurred to me I was disturbed about the reported proliferation of gossip in a particular workplace and what advice I could provide to help the employer overcome the mess gossip had created. These days, I’m also encountering more and more concern about employees engaging in gossip activities via the Internet; so, perhaps there’s a need to seriously pay attention to the topic of gossip again.

However, one of the challenges about gossip is there isn’t strong consensus about what exactly constitutes gossip. Ask a group of people and you’ll get a group of different answers. For instance, some people believe a statement is considered gossip only if it contains untruthful remarks. Others believe gossip is any statement that speaks about an individual and/or an employer without their presence. Still others suggest a statement would be considered gossip only if it includes disparaging remarks, criticism, rumours and/or consists of a range of behaviour, right up to a malicious form of attack bordering on workplace violence.

On the other hand, a review of several dictionary definitions identifies a more toned-down view. Gossip in a dictionary is described as idle talk and/or a rumour that reveals personal or sensational facts about the lives of others. In other words, the dictionary definitions appear less onerous than the public view. In fact, some might refer to this definition as simply water cooler “chit chat.” So, it seems that a definition of gossip is simply in the mind’s eye rather than being definitive.

Yet, I would suggest that in my experience, most people find gossip to be more harmful than helpful, especially in the workplace. Whereas ensuring a harmonistic workplace is the job of every manager, how does one go about determining if gossip is indeed harmful? One way to do this is to assess any statements of concern to determine their impact on people. Ask yourself the following questions:

a) Does the statement attack, belittle or criticize someone’s integrity or misfortune without proof?

b) What is the impact of the statement? Is the relationship between groups damaged in any way as a result of the statement?

c) Does the statement create negative emotional energy that will drive down morale, create negativity and cause conflict?

d) Does the statement damage the reputation of the subject person and/or the organization?

If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, then the statements are more than likely gossip. And believe me, gossip can be just as hurtful and dangerous as those legendary “sticks and stones.” That’s because gossip can literally destroy interpersonal relationships. It will destroy trust between individuals as well as departments. When trust has been destroyed, people are reluctant to share, to work as a team, to reach out and help each other and to give credit for good work.

In some cases, gossip can result in personal job insecurity and a lack of self-confidence. This, in turn, pushes front-line workers to be constantly coming to managers for answers and direction. Managers will then start second-guessing their own decisions. Finally, managers will soon find they are spending far too much time on human-resource issues instead of time needed to spend on organizational planning, process and productivity.
The question, then, is how does an organization — or an individual for that matter — break through this gossip dilemma? There are two potential solutions. First, most managers could apply a policy solution. In fact, we are seeing many organizations writing policies for more aggressive behaviour such as bullying, cyber-bullying, and harassment. These are usually written to closely parallel legislation that has come into place.

However, one of the dangers of writing a policy to cover gossip, as we noted above, is the definition of gossip does not appear to be definitive or consistently understood. And, as was experienced by one organization that terminated an employee for engaging in gossip, the court decision ruled their policy was far too broad and the employee was reinstated.

At the same time, most of us know it’s human nature to talk, to “chit-chat” and to gossip, and so thinking we can simply legislate this issue away is unrealistic. In my view, a much more effective and longer-term strategy is to approach gossip from an educational point of view involving employees, supervisors, managers and senior leaders.

An educational approach would help participants to define and understand ethics and professionalism in the workplace. It would provide interactive experiences so participants would be able to identify instances of hurtful gossip versus idle chit-chat. Spending time in someone else’s “shoes” is a powerful way to bring about true understanding. At the same time, employees need to be given a review of the human-resource policies, where gossip fits within these policies and the disciplinary penalties that go along with it.

An educational approach, particularly for managers, would include a thorough examination of communication skills, especially since it is well known that only 20 per cent of managerial messages actually reach the front line totally intact with their message. As well, managers are particularly poor communicators when they need to send a negative message. For instance, they throw out a trial balloon to see how many questions might be generated. They overwhelm employees with too much information and leave before being asked for clarifications. Or, they hide behind their desk and send out ominous emails to which no one has the opportunity to ask any questions. As you can well imagine, any and all of these communication strategies cause significant relationship breakdowns. An educational approach, consistently delivered and reinforced over time, would help to overcome this issue.

As I indicated earlier, an organization can create as many policies as it wants, but motivating employees to follow them is another matter. Therefore, any educational program being offered must also help employees understand their role in managing their own careers and making a positive contribution toward the harmony in the workplace. While there are many successful tactics individual employees can implement, the following two tactics have proven to be very effective.

1. Identify the gossips – There is one or two in every group. Know who they are and avoid them at all costs. If you are approached and can’t immediately get away, listen, but avoid providing any feedback that would encourage them to continue. Follow the old adage that says, “Don’t believe everything that you hear.”

2. Turn to the positive – Build your skills on how to reframe a statement into a positive comment that doesn’t require a response from your speaker. This creates a disconnect and stops them in their tracks.
Although spring has been late in coming, thankfully it is finally on its way. However, I sincerely hope our spring air will be filled with positive comments and energy along with beautiful, colourful flowers. Cut off gossip as you would with weeds.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She is also host of the weekly Bowes Knows radio show and is the author of Resume Rescue and Taming the Workplace Tigers. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com. Learn more at www.barbarabowes.com.