Workplace Gossip and How It Affects Engagement

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Why Office Gossip is Harmful and What Leaders Can Do

In an organization, it’s often desirable that employees get along with one another. When people who work together become friends, they tend to like coming to work more and teamwork enhances naturally over time. However, a friendly workplace where employees socialize and discuss topics openly with one another can quickly become an environment where gossip thrives.

Workplace gossip can spread very quickly and can overwhelm a team, negatively impacting performance. This is why it’s important for leaders to recognize the beginning of gossip and take steps to reduce the spread as soon as possible.

How Gossip Hurts

There are many ways that workplace gossip can have a negative affect on team members and the organization as a whole.

  • It can hinder productivity
    • If team members are spending a significant amount of time discussing the personal lives of others or speculating on what’s going to happen in the organization, they’re not doing their jobs to the best of abilities. While, in every workplace, there is some time spent socializing (and this can actually be good for engagement) if it gets to the level where it is distracting from work, it becomes a problem that leaders need to address.
  • It can reduce trust
    • In some cases, one team member may confide something personal in another. This can strengthen relationships at work. However, such conversations should always remain confidential. If they do not, people can quickly lose trust in their colleagues, which becomes very detrimental to the team and organization.
  • It undermines leadership messages
    • Sometimes, workplace gossip isn’t just about individuals. It can also be speculation about the organization itself. For example, team members may gossip about potential layoffs, work strategies, or the future of the organization. This sort of gossip undermines the messages that leaders present to their teams. It can also decrease engagement as people who have heard the gossip may put less effort into their work if they feel that something negative is about to happen in the organization.
  • It can lead to harassment
    • When people gossip about those they work with, it can be incredibly hurtful to those who are being talked about and whose personal issues are being shared with others. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t take long for gossip turn into harassment. Not only does this destroy engagement and potentially increase turnover, but it can also open the organization up to various legal issues.

Putting a Stop To Workplace Gossip

There are many different strategies that leaders can adopt to stop workplace gossip. One of the first steps is to directly speak to the individuals who are spreading gossip. Meet with them one-on-one and discuss the situation. Avoid making accusations and instead focus on getting to the truth. Share with the employee the ways that the gossiping is harmful and inform them of the consequences if they continue to gossip at work. In many cases, people don’t think of their gossip as being harmful to coworkers and the overall organization, so when they’re informed of the negative impact they are cause, many will stop gossiping.

It’s also a good idea to meet with the entire team. Have a team meeting about gossip and explain to everyone not just how gossip is harmful, but also the differences between negative gossip and positive gossip. Positive gossip, for example, can be about how someone in the organization worked the weekend to get a project done on time. It’s important that this meeting be an informative one, detailing how gossip is detrimental to the organization. Simply saying “gossip will not be tolerated” and making a threat will likely not go over well. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be potential disciplinary action for those who continue to gossip at work, but the way that this information is delivered to the team certainly matters to ensure engagement remains high.

Like most workplace behaviours, it’s important that leaders display the behaviour that they’re hoping to see in others. If leaders are gossiping, then employees will believe that it’s okay for them to do the same. Gossip can quickly spread throughout an organization and gossip that comes from leadership is often considered “more reputable,” which means that it can gain traction faster. If leaders are conversing with team members and gossip comes up, the leader should say that this discussion isn’t appropriate and change the subject.

By not creating a ‘safe space’ for gossip, those that want to gossip freely with others will find it more difficult to do so. If the team is committed to being open and honest with each other, leaders can facilitate discussions between colleagues so that information that is being discussed about an employee can be shared directly with them (if appropriate).  Or the team can commit to not triangulate, meaning that they agree not discuss another person unless they are part of the communication, whether it be face to face, via email or group text.

Giselle Kovary

As president and co-founder of n-gen People Performance Inc., Giselle is dedicated to building strategies and programs that help clients target, motivate and engage employees in order to increase performance and productivity. She is a sought after resource to industry leaders, having worked with 18 of the top Fortune 500 companies across North America. Over 60,000 people globally have experienced an n-gen workshop or presentation. With close to 20 years of experience in learning and development, she has devoted more than 13 years to researching the impact that generational differences have on organizational performance.

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