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Get a grip on costly office gossip

By Dr. Steve M. Cohen

No matter how distracting, office gossip is something that no manager will ever completely eradicate. Like other human foibles, it’s too ingrained in our systems.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore it or let it dominate your workplace.

Office gossip is increasingly dangerous to many workplaces, including medical offices. It’s not that people do it more or are more prone to harmful dialogue. But with email, text, and social media, the potential for surreptitious and harmful communications is easier than ever.

Like “mean girls” (or boys) in junior high school, some people don’t seem to be able to keep themselves from spreading dirt on someone else. The psychological reasons for this are many and too complex for this blog, but it’s not unusual for a truly committed gossip to engage in an intense and focused campaign for deep-seated personal reasons, including reasons about which they are unaware. Even if they tend to select as victims those who appear different from the group, or those who appear easy to separate from others, their deepest motivations are often inside themselves.

Regardless, gossip today can be more difficult because it seldom occurs around the proverbial water cooler, where at least it was somewhat easy to identify. In today’s world someone can send a text or social media post from his or her desk while appearing hard at work.

Here’s why it matters. Regardless of how it happens, gossip is a big productivity suck. First and foremost, if you’re gossiping and thinking about gossip, you’re not working. It’s a distraction of the first order.

But there’s more. Even at its best, gossip is usually negative. It’s one thing to text about your weekend plans, another to spread negative, even hateful rumors about the person in the next cubicle. The impact can be horrific for others, including but not limited to the target. One of the most widespread forms of harmful office stress is the kind created by such situations, even for seemingly unconnected third parties. Working in an environment filled with vitriol is proven to have negative impact.

Then you can have the formation of office cliques. People may overtly or covertly refuse to cooperate with people who aren’t in their group. Before long, you’ll feel like an elementary school playground supervisor.

It can get worse, however. The continuation of such scenarios may open the office to serious liability. Increased workers’ comp costs, increased absences, loss of good employees, and even lawsuits or fines relating to discrimination and harassment are possible.

What can you do? First, keep office communications open. A frequent target of much office gossip will be you and overall management. By keeping people informed as much as possible, you’ll minimize the human tendency to share rumors. As they say, nature abhors a vacuum. Stopping this kind of gossip help set the right tone.

The organization is also well within its rights to create and enforce policies regarding communications. Encourage employees to discuss issues they may have with a coworker and to approach you or a supervisor if they cannot resolve the issue. Staff members should understand that it’s counterproductive to an efficient office to create or repeat rumors and office gossip. Let them know that gossip can wound human beings and hurt the office. Employees have a right to communicate, but not to attack.

In the worst instances, you may need to use termination. In some cases, it might be tempting to remove the target of gossip, but I strongly recommend against it barring other reasons. Although some gossips can be good workers, they’re often at heart bullies. If you let them have their way, you’ll probably have more trouble going forward.

While examining your policies, you may need to formally prohibit negative and malicious gossiping and spreading rumors as part of your code of conduct. You may also need policies on instant messaging, emailing, and blogging. It’s legal to prohibit employees from making statements about your organization, their coworkers, and your customers, competitors, agents, or partners that could be considered harassing, threatening, libelous, or defamatory. Having these rules “on the books” makes it far easier to deal with a problem when it arises.

None of this is guaranteed to solve all of your problems, but a little planning can go a long way to minimize an old challenge.

Dr. Steve Cohen is Principal and Lead HR Consultant at HR Solutions: On Call, an advisory service for medical practices and other small businesses.









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