Tear Down the Rumor Mill

Building a Gossip-Free Workplace to Tame Office Politics

Tear Down the Rumor Mill

There’s an element of gossip present in every social enterprise. And while light office gossip and a few comments here and there probably won’t hurt anyone, a pervasive culture of rumor-mongering and trash-talking is detrimental to everyone.

“Gossip destroys morale, creates negative energy at work and stops coworkers from becoming a united team, which is what we need, especially during times of layoffs and cutbacks,” says Judith Orloff, MD, the author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions. “It impacts productivity by taking a worker's mind off the task at hand.”

But in the world of office politics, gossip is prevalent, particularly in times of uncertainty, because people are scared and insecure. The folks feeling the greatest anxiety often tend to be the most fervent gossips. Orloff calls them “emotional vampires,” because “they suck other people's energy dry and lift themselves up by putting others down,” she says. Not exactly the epitome of a team player or problem solver, is it?

And that’s why many companies are taking a harder line toward office gossip. At Chicago’s Empower Public Relations, gossip “poisoned the workplace and caused negativity, bitterness and discontent,” recalls Samuel Chapman, Empower’s CEO. “I knew I had to do something, not just for my company, but also for the sake of my employees. I didn’t want them going home at night feeling upset over office gossip or wasting time and energy getting upset over things that weren’t true. I didn’t want rumors to harm anyone’s reputation or hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Office Politics vs. Corporate Policy

So Empower instituted a no-gossip policy. Chapman started by defining gossip as “anything negative which is said out of earshot of the subject,” he explains. “The idea is not to say anything hurtful behind someone’s back.” Instead, Chapman encourages employees who have an issue to go straight to the person, rather than sitting around complaining about them.

If that doesn’t happen, the person who hears the gossip has to report it to the person being gossiped about. And every gossip has to follow up with the person he was gossiping about. “Not only does this make communication more upfront and honest, [but] it also keeps the workplace free of distractions and unnecessary drama,” Chapman says.

Three employees were fired after multiple warnings. “Once they were gone, the entire mood of the office shifted,” he says. “People were happier and calmer. The negativity was gone.”

Legal Implications of Office Gossip

While an official policy may seem like the best way to keep the rumor mill in check, the jury’s still out on its legal enforceability.

“There’s a big legal problem with no-gossip policies,” says Lisa Guerin, legal editor for Berkeley, California-based Nolo, and coauthor of Create Your Own Employee Handbook. “Employees have a right, under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), to talk to each other about the terms and conditions of their employment. This right applies whether or not a workplace is unionized. Any policy that prohibits these communications, either by doing so outright or by using language that employees might interpret as forbidding these conversations, is illegal. So a no-gossip policy that prevents employees from talking to each other about work concerns would be illegal."

When it comes to “business” gossip, the line is a little fuzzier. “Employees may be protected under various labor and employment laws based on some activities that might be deemed 'gossip,'” says Scott Horton, a labor and employment attorney with Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel in Buffalo, New York. “For example, Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act gives many private-sector employees -- including non-union employees -- the right to engage in concerted activities for their mutual aid and protection. That could possibly apply where employees are discussing the impact that rumored layoffs may have on their employment status.”

Still, many organizations want to minimize business rumors -- including those that are true -- that could adversely affect their business position. Sharing company information could potentially affect stock price, which, if discovered, can result in legal action. Remember Martha Stewart? A friend told her that his company’s cancer drug was rejected by the Food and Drug Administration. The information would have a dramatic negative impact on its stock price. Based on this gossip, she sold her stock before the news was made public. That sale -- and her misleading investigators about it -- led to her serving jail time.

Corporate Philosophy

A different approach to curtailing office politics and gossip may be one that’s ingrained in corporate culture and values. “It’s important to create the kind of workplace culture where it’s safe for employees to voice concerns and to ask questions,” explains Marne Reed, vice president of human resources at PrintingForLess.com in Livingston, Montana. “We expect each person to act in a mature, friendly, respectful and responsible manner at all times. In practice, this means that all employees should consider the effects their words and actions will have on others in the workplace.”

This aligns directly with the company’s values, which factor into employee evaluations. “All of our values -- and ‘we aren’t a political, back-stabbing, gossipy snake pit’ is one -- are reinforced throughout our performance measurement systems,” Reed notes. Regular evaluations and one-on-one conferences help managers and employees monitor adherence to corporate values and goals. When communication channels are open and candid, the rumor mill grinds to a halt.