HR Headaches: How to Handle Gossip in the Workplace

October 14, 2021・6 mins read
HR Headaches: How to Handle Gossip in the Workplace

One of the best things about connecting with colleagues is the camaraderie that it brings. From coffee breaks in the office to chat sessions around the virtual water cooler for remote teams, it’s great to share tidbits about life with people who know you well — but are somewhat separate from the life you live outside of work. There are certain coworker relationships that are special and valued. But getting a group of people together can lead to less than ideal outcomes as well. One of those is the all-too-familiar problem of gossip in the workplace. You don’t have to be the victim of office gossip to think back to high school and remember how painful the hurt feelings can be. When the idle chitchat that’s vital to office relationships veers into the unhealthy and hurtful realm of gossip, it must be addressed. Talking badly about others behind their backs is unkind and unfair. An office rumor mill left unchecked can spawn profoundly negative consequences. It can rob its victims of morale and send them heading for the door — destroying their sense of mental, emotional, and social well-being along the way.

How to handle workplace gossip

What can you realistically do about gossip in the workplace? How can you even identify, much less stop, gossip among coworkers? Isn't it simply human nature? Despite some common beliefs, it is possible to tackle the problem of gossip in the workplace. Furthermore, stopping gossip is critical to cultivating a positive work environment and workplace culture. Knowing how to handle gossip is the first step toward eliminating it. Addressing the problem may be challenging, but the results are worth it. Reducing gossip can help you and your employees enjoy a more productive and overall healthy work environment. Here are a few tips for noticing, addressing, and ultimately reducing or stopping gossip in the workplace.

First, don’t contribute to gossip

Many people can be lured in by juicy information or negative talk about people they know. But there’s simply no room for that in a professional setting, especially from those in a leadership role of any kind. When you're hearing gossip, don’t participate in it. Consider providing a contrast by leading by example. And don’t overshare details of your personal life or indulge in overly personal conversations with coworkers while in the office. Consider pointing out that the person being discussed isn’t there to defend themselves. Note that just because people are discussing information and passing it on to others doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Have, and enforce, a policy on gossip

If your company has a policy against workplace gossip, remind employees of the policy and why it exists. Gossip can create a toxic work environment and destroy otherwise healthy office relationships and company morale. If your company doesn’t have an office policy on gossip, now is a good time to create one. Unlike children, who often take instruction without question, adults often respond better when rules are supported by reasonable explanations. Show that you’re not making rules arbitrarily or trying to control employees for no good reason. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Consider outlining in your policy the damage that gossip can do. Research shows the existence of both positive gossip and negative gossip. While gossip in the workplace can be unifying for those on the inside, it’s damaging to its victims. When gossip is true, it can lead to short-term increases in work effort — but that’s only when it’s not destructive. Either way, gossip in the workplace leads to its targets losing the desire to cooperate with their team members. The negative impacts of gossip outweigh any potential positive effects. Then, outline the disciplinary actions for gossiping at work based on how you classify the behavior at your business. Depending on the nature of the gossip, you can hold workers accountable for bullying, harassment, or even creating a hostile work environment as a result.

Make transparency king

Often, gossip is the result of a lack of information. Imagine a rumor about layoffs circulating, and each person who hears it adds speculation to fill informational gaps. Before you know it, a full-blown falsehood is wreaking havoc. The best way to manage this kind of gossip is to be as transparent as possible with the information you have. This particularly pertains to details that impact your employees. When people are truthfully informed, there’s less opportunity for rumors to fill the voids. When gossip does occur, it’s best to act quickly to nip the behavior in the bud. The longer the negative behavior persists, the more other employees may witness it and assume it’s permissible and won’t result in disciplinary action. Take steps to eliminate the gossip by identifying who has been initiating and perpetuating it and who is the victim. Then arrange individual and/or group meetings to root out the issue at the core of the rumors and squash it then and there. Having a company policy on workplace gossip comes in handy during these meetings. It makes it easy to refer the offending parties to the company’s policy and potential disciplinary action. Including the policy in your employee handbook helps ensure that everyone knows, or should know, about it.

Treat gossip like any other negative behavior

Termination for office gossip is an option, but it should be a last resort. For many people who have been gossiping since their teen years, it can be a tough habit to break. Firing an employee for gossiping can seem extreme. Yet employers and human resources professionals must consider the tolls the behavior can take on everything from the individual employee experience to company morale. Getting a grip on the issue can also help reduce turnover among employees you want to retain. Just like with any other professional behavioral issue, start with coaching first. Be patient but inflexible in the fact that the gossip has to stop. Work through traditional improvement and discipline strategies that progress through stages of warnings and improvement plans. It can be tough to let people go for something so unrelated to their performance as an employee. It's best if the behavior gets corrected. That said, workplace gossip can kill the positive company culture that you’ve worked tirelessly to construct and maintain. It’s essential that you protect the fruits of your efforts. Business has its challenges. And we've got the tips, tools, and solutions for overcoming them. Count on TriNet throughout the day for support along the HR and business management journey.   

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