Some employers get tough on workplace gossip
Policies to quash such chatter, including job termination, may boost morale and the bottom line.
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"Gossip is often highly moralistic and functions as a social control system," he says. "The first thing that happens when there's a social transgression is gossip. Often it's the only thing that needs to happen. We can use it to punish transgressions by social exclusion and shunning."
If employees are happy, they will tend to use gossip for benign purposes, Professor Wilson adds. "But if they perceive management as the enemy, they will gossip for their own interest. That will not be in the interest of management. The solution is not to end gossip but to make the company more equitable."
Yet Chapman defends his no-gossip policy, noting that the culture in his gossip-free office has changed markedly. Business has doubled in a year, he says. He is writing a book, "The No-Gossip Zone." He's even fielding calls from those in other professions. "I've had a lot of ministers reach out to me, trying to deal with gossip inside their congregations."
Calling gossip "an explosion of bad work energy," he says, "Think about the positive energy you replace it with."
Employers who identify gossiping as grounds for discipline and termination need to notify employees in advance, preferably in writing, says Craig Annunziata, managing partner of Fisher & Phillips, an employment law firm in Chicago.
Despite efforts to stop rumors, situations may still arise where termination is the only resolution.
"If gossip runs counter to your company values or creates a legal liability, you've got to act on that," says Bruce Clarke, president of Capital Associated Industries, a nonprofit employers association in Raleigh, N.C. "If one employee is defaming another and you don't take action to change the false story, in most states there's a potential claim."
Yet even Chapman makes exceptions for some forms of gossip. He emphasizes that his no-gossip policy applies only to interactions with colleagues and clients. "It's OK to talk about public figures," he says. "We still gossip about Britney Spears and Eliot Spitzer."
Dealing with a gossip
"Psst! Have you heard the latest?"
That whispered voice often belongs to the office gossip, eager to spread the latest rumor. The information might or might not be true. But if you don't want to be part of the rumor mill, what can you do? Kate Zabriskie, a communication trainer at Business Training Works in Port Tobacco, Md., offers these suggestions:
• When someone tries to gossip with you, walk away or change the subject.
• You can also say, "I'm not comfortable talking about _____." Or state, "I don't like talking about other people because I don't like them talking about me."
• You can reply, "I hadn't heard that about _____. Let's go ask him or her."
• When someone gossips about you, say, "I heard that you've been saying the following about me. I would appreciate your coming to me directly with any comments rather than talking with others."
• Don't gossip yourself. Then you don't have to worry about someone betraying your confidence and telling other people what you said.