Thursday, May 22, 2014

Gossip: Poison In Your Workplace?

Gossip is rampant in many workplaces. It really seems like people have nothing better to do than gossip to and about each other. They talk about the business, coworkers, and their managers; they spread deliberate half-truths and pass on what their bestie told them was true.

Realistically, we have to expect some gossip – we are human beings, after all – but unchecked gossip can be destructive and downright poisonous. As managers, there are times when we must step in and quash the chattering. We need to act when the gossip becomes disruptive, is hurtful or damaging to an employee’s reputation or damaging to workplace interpersonal relationships, and we need to step in when the gossip has the effect of putting a damper on employee motivation and morale. That can be a culture issue we’ll want to change. Who wants to work where people expend more energy on talking negatively about each other than doing any productive work? This kind of information about your company atmosphere can and does get out into the community; you don’t what that to be your company’s reputation.

Should you have a policy prohibiting gossip?

It’s not uncommon for employers to have such policies. However, as has been the case in many areas of workplace rules and policies regarding employee conduct, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has stepped in with their $.02. In Laurus Technical Institute the administrative law judge found Laurus’ policy on gossiping to be unlawful as it was too broad and could be interpreted to limit employees’ right to discuss wages, hours and other conditions of work. So, writing a policy prohibiting gossip may not be the best route to take. It may be better to handle it under a broader conduct policy and expectations for professional behavior in the workplace.

While you may not want to prohibit employees from say, complaining about their supervisor (protected activity?), there are limits to what you should allow. If the gossip crosses the line into bullying or harassment, you have potential liability under federal and state discrimination laws, for instance.

You can manage gossip in the same way you would any other undesirable behavior in your workplace. Coaching, when possible, can be effective, if the gossiper is receptive to an empathic understanding of the negative effects of such gossip. But, when needed, a serious conversation between the employee and manager or supervisor will often be necessary. As with any disciplinary or corrective discussion, be sure to follow through with consequences if the behavior doesn’t change.

On a more global level within your workplace, remind employees that if they have issues or questions about policies, that their supervisor or manager (or HR) is normally the best person to answer these questions.

I often think that if people would spend as much time and energy on their job as they do on gossip and drama at their job, we would all be richer, more successful and much happier. Too much to ask for? Probably. :)

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