Ryan Atherton, FEI Account Manager

I’ve been speaking with a lot of employees and managers about gossip in the workplace. As anyone naturally does these days, I Googled “workplace gossip” to view the latest trends and such. Here are some of the more prominent words/phrases I came across: Malicious, toxic, dangerous, erosion of trust, divisive, hurt feelings, and so on and so on.

Negativity and blame jumped off the page. Almost every search result spoke to “handling,” “getting rid of,” or “managing” gossip, all the while placing the blame on gossipers without asking the most important question: Whether in the workplace or out in the world, why does anyone gossip?

Writing for Journal of Applied Psychology, Daniel Brady, Douglas J. Brown and Lindie Hanyu Liang state that “typical workplace gossip can be either positive or negative in nature and may serve important functions.” The basic idea here is people can gossip negatively (e.g. insults) but it can also be positive (e.g. self-preservation). The blame can be on the gossipers, but often in the workplace it’s people who are causing others to gossip that are the real problem.

Ineffective, unclear or disjointed communication from the top down that might impact an employee’s livelihood leaves them in a state of confusion, or more specifically cognitive dissonance. In this state, one needs to act so stress reduction can take place because ruminating in wonder will lead to mental disarray. Hence, experienced and inexperienced employees alike speculate on what management is discussing or deciding “behind closed doors” to realign their attitude towards work. To me, another way to describe this speculation is gossip.

As managers, you need to be acutely aware of potential shortfalls in communicating with the employees for which you are responsible. For example, telling someone you just spoke to an external contact about several things – including complaints – then sidestepping their follow-up with “we’ll talk about it later” is one of the worst things you can do. Think about it this way: You told an employee about something they have no power to act on and will speak to them about it in the future. As a result, the employee now feels powerless, fearful of wrongly perceived action and worried about their job security.

I recommend instead assuring employees they are not in trouble or that the issue isn’t urgent. If it is a disciplinary concern, you need to be more cognizant of your conversation with them; in other words, you need to understand your language and actions have consequences that will only worsen for you in the future – likely via gossip. Consider holding weekly meetings to deliver information and answer any questions from your employees. In return, you will be rewarded for the consistency and transparency you demonstrate.

If not, you can gossip about this blog instead.