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Dealing with gossip in the workplace

GOSSIP is as old as communications and no workplace is immune from it. Apparently, most of us enjoy hearing random tit-bits about colleagues or co-workers, but is there a point when engaging in “innocent” gossip becomes detrimental to your career? I would from the onset liken gossip in the workplace to outright bullying and harassment. In fact, according to a recent survey by Flex Jobs in the United States, the number one reason respondents want to telecommute for work is to avoid office politics. Here is a story:

l The new leader was charming when he wanted to be. He often by-passed his managers and went to their direct reports seeking information to support his views and to obtain staff criticism of their leaders. His charisma caused many employees to open up to him, usually to their regret. He was also charming with customers and the public. Although a few of the more astute would explain they felt something was missing, they however could not put their finger on their uneasiness.

l Other staff members were called upon to do his dirty work. Since he wanted to be liked and revered, he directed his newly-hired staff (the supporters) to carry out his directions, especially when those actions had adverse impact on other staff members. If the impacted staff asked to speak with him about these actions, the president would feign surprise that these actions occurred; obviously, the subordinate manager had acted without his direction.

l While he was uncomfortable giving negative feedback to an individual, he was skilled at chastising large staff groups (in his mind this showed his toughness). For example, on one staff call he told the entire organisation that if anyone was not supportive of him or his direction, he could easily find someone who was equally competent.

But why do people dish about their co-workers? Over the years I have seen workplace gossip in multiple locations. I have worked in such an environment, along with its negative consequences. I would say “People who gossip tend to use this tool as a way to elevate their own status, and project superiority over the person in question”.

If you feel as though petty gossip has taken over your own work space, here are some suggestions to quell the urge to over share too much while in the office.

  • Set up a no tolerance policy:

Here is what one chief executive of a leading company has to say, Tapiwa (not his real name) has a zero-tolerance to gossip policy. “I hate gossip so badly that I decided to have a no-gossip policy in our company. You are not allowed to gossip and work for me. Everyone is clear, if one of my leaders or I catch a team member gossiping, we will warn them once, then we will fire them.”

That might seem extreme to some, but sometimes the only way to strongly make a point is to clearly define your policy and any potential hazards of not honouring it.

Tapfuma (not real name) of another leading food chain weighed in: “If your business has a zero-tolerance policy for violence and bullying, then it’s legal and ethical to roll gossiping in under this policy.” Make sure that the policy comes from the top and is publicised and enforced. Gossip in the workplace can destroy even the best work cultures.

  • Know when it is best to just keep your mouth shut: Many of us discuss things on our social networks or during business hours that do not best represent our public selves or company reputations. Take the politician who nicknamed himself “Danger,” or more recently, the public relations executive who made a really bad joke and was on an overseas flight when the social media monster devoured her reputation.

So how can you stop yourself from falling into the lure of social media gossiping? Here is what I think; when it comes to topics that might be considered off colour or potentially scandalous, I would advise folks from becoming involved in the scandal du jour.

“As much as I would want to state my opinion on people or topics via social media, there are many times when I simply don’t. You always have to look at what you post that has your personal opinion and ask yourself do I want to open that door?”

Sometimes it is best to keep your opinion to yourself.

  • Go directly to the source (of your irritation): As difficult as it is to confront a co-worker, it will probably save both of you a lot of heartache in the long run if you choose to discuss any issue openly and honestly. In her new book, Life’s In Session, corporate consultant Robin HC suggests, “If you have something to say to a person in your life that’s of a sensitive nature, go direct. Don’t be one of those people that airs their complaint to everyone they know — except the one person who can address it. It creates unnecessary drama and stress for others.
    If you truly care to resolve the problem, going direct is the way to do it. It demonstrates respect and is a mature, solution-based approach to voicing a complaint you have with another.”
  • Transform gossip into a force for change: Finally, if you are noticing an abundance of gossip in your own workspace, consider setting up a way for employees to make completely anonymous complaints without repercussions of any sort. After all, a lot of gossip in the workplace is generated by valid concerns, i.e, “He takes two-hour lunches every day,” or “She never gets called to task for being late on a project like the rest of us.”

Set up boundaries and rules well in advance of soliciting potentially sensitive feedback, and be prepared to hear things that you might not like. Decide how complaints will be recognised and acted on if proven valid. This can be a challenge, but realise that your employees act many times as the face of your brand: by allowing them to voice their dissatisfaction, you are creating a key way to make the company better and stronger.

Gossip is best kept for tabloids and reality television. As tempting as it is to indulge every now and again, ultimately, you run the risk of dragging yourself, your reputation, and your company through the mud.

Employers are responsible for providing employees with a safe workplace that is free of harassment and discrimination. Does your company have an elaborate code of conduct covering all these issues? We can help you develop one

Mandeya is an executive coach in human capital development and corporate education, a certified life coach in leadership and professional development at the Institute of Leadership Research and Development. You can contact him on lead.inst.dev@gmail.com, mandeyarobert@gmail.com.

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