Managing Rumors and Gossip in the Workplace

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Rumors Grow, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Wherever people gather there will be conversation; sometimes (okay, often!), that conversation becomes gossip, which may blossom into rumor. Much like office politics, rumors and excessive gossip in the workplace create a drain on morale that managers and HR professionals must get a handle on. Damaging rumors can cause uneasiness, distrust between management and staff and infighting between colleagues or departments. Allowing negative rumors to run wild is not an acceptable option. The only thing to do with destructive gossip and malicious rumors is tackle them head on—bring issues out into the open before they further undermine employee trust and confidence.

What’s the best way to banish nasty stories that grow in dark corners and feed on lies?  Shine enough light to reveal both the source of the rumor and the reality behind it.

Mind Tools suggests you take the following four steps[1] to enlighten people when they fall prey to the lurking gossip troll.

  1. Deal with rumors immediately – Rumors can spread quickly, and they can often change and grow far beyond the small bit of truth that caused them to start. When you hear of a rumor, talk to the people involved. Where appropriate, hold a meeting to address the rumor, and then communicate the truth. Again, if you can't provide all of the details, be honest – and restate your policy about rumor and gossip in the workplace.
  2. Set a good example – When someone comes to you with an "interesting" or entertaining story, refuse to get involved. When you hear a story from someone other than a direct source, ask questions. Do what you can to find out the truth. Talk to your boss about what you heard. Again, this keeps the lines of communication open between different channels, and it helps stop rumors.
  3. Watch for patterns with rumors – If a certain type of rumor continues to spread, this may mean that you need to provide more information or more regular updates. If a particular person seems to start or spread rumors often, address the situation directly. Rumors affect productivity, so you must deal with them directly as a performance issue.
  4. Regularly audit your rumor behavior – Also, encourage your team to do the same. Think about what you might have done over the past month or two to spread rumors. Ask yourself why you participated. Prepare a plan of action so that you'll be less tempted to get involved in the future. If everyone holds themselves a bit more accountable for rumors in the workplace, their frequency – and their negative consequences – will drop.

Of course, as my mother used to say: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Your best defense against an over-zealous rumor mill is a workplace culture that naturally discourages such behavior. If honest communication, transparency, trust and cooperation are lived values in your organization, there will be limited fodder to sustain spiteful gossip or feed the rumor mill.

Maintaining such an environment requires commitment and mutual effort because our brains seem to prefer bad memories and negative stories. Subconsciously, most of us dwell on defeats rather than victories and obsess over the possibility of loss rather than focusing on the opportunity to succeed. Perhaps, as researchers suggest, there is an evolutionary explanation for this.

Regardless of the cause, this common predisposition means that preventing destructive chatter in the workplace requires overcoming people’s natural tendency to focus on the negative. In other words, you’ll need to give employees lots of reasons to feel good about themselves, the company, their co-workers and the work you all do together. For most people, it takes as many as five positive things to balance out one negative thing[2]. In the context of gossip and rumor, that means it will take many examples of contradictory evidence to offset the damage of one harmful rumor. Although fostering a culture that rejects gossip and rumor takes effort; cleaning up a workplace where the rumor mill runs rampant is a lot harder.


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[1] Rumors in the Workplace: Managing and Preventing Them

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