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3 steps a manager must take to end harmful gossip in the workplace

By Lynne Curry  bio

The conversation stops when you walk into the break room. Two employees look at each other, mouth “later,” and head back to their desks.

An hour later, you see another employee dart into the restroom and come out five minutes later with reddened eyes. You ask her “what’s up?” and when she looks like she might burst into tears, you usher her into your office. You learn she’s overheard other employees talking about a personal situation she considers private.

Gossip, it spreads as fast as wildfire, sours the workplace, and negatively impacts morale and productivity. And it can create legal liability.

Failing to stop false rumor may constitute discrimination

In February 219, the Fourth Circuit Court (governing Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, and the District of Maryland ruled that an employer’s failure to stop a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain a promotion potentially constitutes sex discrimination. The plaintiff in that case, Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., began as a clerk and received six promotions in two years, eventually becoming the Assistant Operations Manager. A male coworker who joined the company when Parker did, but didn’t receive a promotion, started a rumor that Parker slept with a senior manager to advance her career. A warehouse manager then spread the rumor and held a mandatory all-staff meeting during which the rumor was discussed, although he didn’t allow Parker into the meeting.

Parker then scheduled a meeting with this warehouse manager, who blamed her for bringing a problem situation into the workplace. He also told her she would not receive future promotions. Parker filed a formal hostile work environment complaint with HR and HR instructed her to avoid her boss. Parker then received written warnings, including on resulting from a complaint by the man who started the rumors. Parker was fired and filed a lawsuit for hostile environment and retaliatory termination.

The Fourth Circuit Court ruled that the employer could be liable because they hadn’t quashed the rumor which perpetuated a “deeply rooted perception” that women, but not men, use sex to advance their careers. The Court also noted that the potentially jealous male employee who started the rumor was never sanctioned and that at least one male manager was instrumental in spreading the rumors. The Court also noted that the female employee received negative career consequences, but that the male employee who was allegedly sleeping with her didn’t suffer consequences.

3 steps to wipe out gossip

If you’d like to wipe out gossip in your workplace, take these three action steps.

Step 1: Shine the light on gossip

Gossip hides in the corners and behind the “it wasn’t me who started it.” If you want to stop gossip, identify the instigators and the spreaders.

You can generally locate those who fuel gossip’s transmission. Simply ask the last individual identified in the gossip chain “who did you hear this from?” Because this person wants absolution, she’ll normally point the finger at the person who told her.

Interview that person and ask, “and who did you hear it from?” Call each person in the gossip chain on her behavior; they’re all culpable. Let each know you consider them responsible for their part and that there’s no such thing as “I only passed what I heard along”; passing it along is the definition of gossip.

Tracking the individual who launches the gossip takes more time; however, you’ll start to notice the same individuals at the center of each gossip firestorm. Meet with them, and let them know the discipline that may result if their behavior continues.

Step 2: Provide training

Some managers hope they can end gossip by telling the culprits “Stop it. Now get back to work.” Edicts only send gossip underground. To truly eradicate gossip, your team members need to buy in to stopping it.

Hold a team meeting and ask, “What are the consequences if we allow gossip?” This creates the foundation for a no-gossip workplace. Next, build the walls against gossip by training your staff how to nip it in the bud.

Since gossip breeds in passive-aggressive soil, teach everyone how to successfully and directly handle conflict and how to raise issues so they can be resolved.

Because gossip requires two people—the spreader and the receiver—teach everyone simple statements they can make when another team approaches them with gossip, such as “I’m not comfortable talking about her behind her back” or “I hadn’t heard that, so let’s go ask her together and see if it’s really true.”

Teach those who’ve been or might be a gossip’s target how to directly take the gossiper on, with statements such as, “I’ve heard you’ve been saying xxx about me. I’d appreciate you coming to me directly when you hear or think things like that.”

Step 3: Define your culture

Finally, lead your team in a discussion around “how do we want it to be in our workplace?” Work with them to define a culture that’s supportive, honest, and positive.

You may want to create an anti-gossip policy to underscore this culture; however, realize that the National Labor Relations Board requires that any anti-gossip policy be narrow in scope and limited to non-work issues so that employees can talk about work-related issues and working conditions. (If you’d like more detail on this, you can look up the NLRB ruling against the Laurus Technical Institute’s anti-gossip policy.)

Conclusion

Don’t ignore or underestimate the damaging effects of gossip in your workplace. Take steps now to stomp it out.


Lynne Curry, PhD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” and “Solutions,” which has great articles on how to remember names & 60 real-life workplace dramas with practical solutions. Both have 4.8-star ratings on Amazon.com.

Curry and her group regularly work with law firms and medical practices and hospitals, providing HR on-call, training, expert witness work, facilitation, strategic planning, investigation, mediation, and executive and professional coaching. You can reach her at www.thegrowthcompany.com or LCurry@avitusgroup.com or via LinkedIn or Twitter @lynnecurry1.


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