"Rumour Has It": The Pros and Cons of Workplace Gossip

Gossip: Evaluative talk between two or more persons about a third party that is absent from conversation (Grosser, Lopez-Kidwell, Labianca, & Ellwardt, 2012).

Workplace gossip can serve a variety of functions and can have both positive and negative ramifications for organizations. In some instances, people gossip for personal gain without regard to organizational impact (Kniffin & Wilson, 2010). In other instances, people gossip for organizational development without regard to individual risk (Kniffin & Wilson, 2010). Whether gossip results in enhanced organizational performance or in conflict and damaged relationships depends on the perspective from which one is viewing the situation, and on the intentions behind the gossip (Grosser, Lopez-Kidwell, Labianca, & Ellwardt, 2012). It is fairly safe to say that gossip is a fundamental human activity that will never be completely eradicated from the workplace, however, it can be managed to some extent. Questioning the nature of workplace gossip can provide managers with a better understanding of the functions that gossip serves within organizations.

WHY DO PEOPLE GOSSIP AT WORK?

Grosser et al. (2012) identify six main functions that gossip serves in organizational contexts. These include:

  1. Getting information - Gossip can provide individuals in organizations with useful and timely information. Specifically, information tends to move through informal communication networks faster than formal channels. 
  2. Gaining influence - Gossip can affect the extent of informal power one has within their organization. Power in this milieu can be thought of as an individual’s ability to influence others to do things that they would not otherwise do. The individual who always knows the latest juicy piece of gossip is seen by colleagues as being well-connected in the workplace, and therefore influential.
  3. Releasing pent-up emotions - Gossiping with another colleague about a tense relationship or difficult person can serve as an emotional outlet for the gossiper. In this case, gossip serves as a safety net whereby an individual can ‘‘vent’’ to another. Venting may reduce stress and feelings of anxiety. For example, two co-workers who gossip with one another about how unfair their manager is may find it easier to deal with the situation after doing so. 
  4. Providing intellectual stimulation - Gossip is an activity that can intellectually stimulate employees. This is a particularly important function for individuals who work in monotonous jobs that require little variety or cognitive challenge. Thus, gossip can serve to prevent boredom, perhaps even misery for workers in certain occupations.
  5. Fostering interpersonal intimacy - The exchange of gossip between two employees is a means of forming and maintaining relationships within an organization. Research shows that individuals who share their negative attitudes about third parties feel closer to one another and that the transmission of gossip requires a trusting relationship. Negative gossip tends to only be shared among friends and not among casual colleagues or acquaintances.
  6. Maintaining and enforcing group values and norms - The gossip that is spread within work teams, divisions, and organizations reveal much about the culture of those respective groups. Organizational gossip can also be suggestive of what is or isn’t acceptable in the workplace. Gossip can also serve to maintain a group’s norms and values by circulating judgments about deviant group members. Thus, the threat of becoming the target of disapproving gossip is often enough to prevent an individual from violating such norms.

WHEN WORKPLACE GOSSIP TURNS SOUR

It is evident that gossip can serve many functions within an organization, however, it is not always the preferable means to an end. In fact, there are many negative effects associated with workplace gossip. For every party that grows closer by partaking in negative gossip about somebody, there is the gossip target who could potentially suffer by hearing of the exchange (Grosser et al., 2012). For every worker who gains influence by unkindly revealing a mistake made by a colleague, there is an individual who must cope with a damage in reputation (Grosser et al., 2012). In extreme cases, negative gossip can create a hostile work environment whereby employee morale, work performance, and team building suffers (Bostock, 2015). Negative gossip can also take a toll on one’s mental health and well-being in the workplace.

HOW MANAGERS CAN STOP NEGATIVE GOSSIP

  • Formally communicate information - The information void that results from a breakdown in formal communication is often filled by gossip and rumours. This is especially true when there is an uncertain marketplace and pending organizational change which can often create anxiety among employees. Clear, frequent, and sincere communication from management is an important antidote to negative workplace gossip (Grosser et al., 2012). 

  • Promote organizational fairness - Ensuring that employees get treated fairly is a basic management function. Low levels of organizational justice can spark the generation and dissemination of negative gossip in the workplace (Grosser et al., 2012). Find ways of allowing employees to have a say in decision-making. 

  • Provide mechanisms for coping with stress and boredom - Helping employees effectively cope with stress at work will reduce their need to release their stress in more harmful ways e.g. negative gossip! This can be done by implementing flexible work schedules, career development initiatives, role analysis, goal setting, and improving the job design of certain positions (Grosser et al., 2012). 

  • Address specific perpetrators - Gossip within an office can largely stem from one person.  Your first action should be to stop negative gossip on a personal level. This can be done by directly addressing the key gossiper(s) one-one-one, in a confidential location where others cannot hear the discussion. The goal is to help the person understand the impact of their behaviour in a non-threatening manner (Quast, 2013). 

  • Encourage positive gossip - This is when managers and employees share positive stories. Positive gossip can also be about individual employees, such as sharing instances where employees went out of their way to help a customer, or to develop a novel idea (Quast, 2013). Take time at staff meetings to highlight positive gossip stories to encourage positive behaviour. 

  • Lastly, model the behaviour you want to see - Employees will look to you for what behaviours are acceptable and not (Quast, 2013). You need to ensure that you are “walking the walk and talking the talk” at all times and leading by example. 

What is your take on the pros and cons of workplace gossip? How do you prevent negative gossip from occurring in your workplace? Let us know in the comments!

References

Bostock, C. (2015). Pros and cons of workplace gossip. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cheyenne-bostock/pros-and-cons-of-workplac_b_8665398.html

Grosser, T. J., Lopez-Kidwell, V., Labianca, G., & Ellwardt, L. (2012). Hearing it through the grapevine: Positive and negative workplace gossip. Organizational Dynamics, 41(1), 52-61. doi:10.1016/j.orgdyn.2011.12.007

Knifflin, K. M., & Wilson, D. S. (2010). Evolutionary perspectives on workplace gossip: Why and how gossip can serve groups. Group & Organization Management, 35(2), 150-176. doi: 10.1177/1059601109360390

Quast, L. (2013). New managers: 5 ways to stop negative office gossip. Forbes: Leadership. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/lisaquast/2013/10/14/new-managers-5-ways-to-stop-negative-office-gossip/

Photo credit: http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2014/09/do-you-know-how-much-your-boss-earns/