Nip that talk

Gos­sip grows like a bad weed in the workplace

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FRONT PAGE - 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. There seems to be a wide range of opin­ion that might even be grow­ing. 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 is 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:

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

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

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

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 sec­ondguess­ing 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 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.

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.”

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, M.Ed., CCP is pres­i­dent of Legacy Bowes Group and Ca­reer Part­ners In­ter­na­tional, Man­i­toba. She can be reached at barb@


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