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Workplace Rumors and Gossip: Understanding, Treating, and Using Them

published April 27, 2010

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 15 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)
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While such a view may not be wrong most of the time, a fixed and biased attitude towards gossip and rumors often provoke retaliatory micromanagement. And micromanagement has its own chain of negative consequences. If you are working in-house as a team member or as manager of a team, then understanding the facts about gossip and rumors can increase your ability to control the workspace.

What's the difference between gossip and rumors in the workspace?

While in most spheres of life, it is difficult to draw the line between gossip and rumors, to deal with them in the workspace one needs to categorize:
  • Gossip involves sharing of scandalous information of interpersonal relationships, or of amoral acts and events; rumors involve sharing partial information or guesswork on events that affect the workspace, usually involve employee security concerns, and disguise a call for action.
  • Gossip is seen as having an entertainment factor without involving a need for personal action, rumors are seen as secret information that need to be acted upon, or at least, verified.
  • Gossip can damage personal reputations and act as a tool for harassing or bullying other employees, uncontrolled rumors can damage the entire workspace and act as tools for fomenting dissent against the establishment.
  • Gossip can never be put to any positive use; sometimes lower and middle management use controlled rumors to effectively motivate employees.
  • Gossip is generally harmless in-house, unless the gossip targets people who are in the same organization or have a work-relationship with the organization; uncontrolled rumors are always harmful for the workspace.
  • Gossip can escalate to slander and become an actionable offence if related to abilities or performance of a professional; rumors rarely escalate to the position of legally actionable offence, but are a case for organizational action.

How to manage gossip and rumors

Primarily, ignore gossip and take care of rumors. People like to share and discuss interesting information, and somehow to many, finding that others possess human frailties acts as a balm for their own failures. Harmless gossip is not a fit case for intervention.

Even in the case of harmful gossip, one must manage the situation carefully and not rush things. Many a time, an attempt to intervene only adds another element to the gossip and seems to lend credence to the story. Also, people might see it as a kind of micromanagement and resent managerial interference in what they see as their private territory. Gossip if ignored, can lose its harmful effect once the novelty of the story wears off. Address gossip promptly and with a firm hand, only if it is seen as harming, bullying, or abusing other employees, or tending towards slander of any professional.

Workplace rumors usually start because there is lack of information or lack of communication on something that concerns employees and:
  • Somebody wants to feel important and prove that he or she is ''in the know.'' Usually, this behavior is expected of people who are feeling insecure or feel that they lack power and control in the workspace.
  • Somebody wants to exploit the gap in information to strike at the organization or management by sowing dissent and insecurity.
  • The management itself maintains gaps in information and drops cues to motivate employees in a certain direction.

So, whatever be the case, a rumor can establish itself and gain importance only if there is lack of communication or lack of information on any matter. The first step to bring rumors under control and manage them is to root out the lack of information and build transparency. Keep each worker properly informed on matters that concern him or her, and build an environment of open communication where the management is directly and personally approachable by every employee. Begin the culture of not entertaining people who approach with secrets to share. Let people be clear that certain types of rumor are unacceptable.

Finally, after the intensely competitive rat race of the twentieth century, it is necessary to establish a culture that recognizes cooperation more than competition. A competitive atmosphere is good, but not to the extent where it sows distrust and resentment of one employee against another. In such an environment, rumors and gossip have the chance to run amok, for channels of communication are almost non-existent among peers or large groups.

It is almost impossible to completely eradicate gossip and rumors from the workspace, however this article might help you to get rid of the worst. The secrets lie in providing accurate information to concerned parties; providing information in time; keeping channels of communication open, and in clearly underlining which kinds of gossip or rumor are not acceptable.

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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