If you've ever worked in an office or any other kind of workplace with more than one person in it, then you will have come across the inevitable workplace gossip. According to Oxford Dictionaries gossip is defined as 'casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true'. Sharon Buckler looks at how office gossip can be detrimental to your workplace and what you can do to combat it.
If we have any social interest at all then it can be safely said that we all gossip to an extent. It's a natural way of garnering information about others and sharing it, that dispenses with that troublesome etiquette of actually asking the subject themselves about an 'incident' that might be doing the rounds, their sexual proclivity or what they got up to last weekend. However, tittle-tattle can become dangerous, inflammatory and even slanderous. In the micro environment of an office this can become a major problem even if it does not originate from a harmful place.
To a certain extent, trust in your colleagues is the main lynchpin underlining a happy and productive workplace. Sensing an atmosphere on entering work and not knowing the cause can affect your self-confidence in your work and your trust in the work of others. It can also lead to mental and emotional vulnerability which can cloud every working minute and will affect not only the job at hand but the baggage you take back to your home life.
In some cases, gossip can be used to derail a disliked colleague and is considered a form of bullying. Of course, there is also work-related gossip which can be negative for the morale of a company, particularly when it is regarding important matters such as potential changes within a company that may directly affect employees (redundancies, take-overs, pay cuts etc).
Government legislation such as the Employment Act (2008) has been updated to cover what is considered discrimination or harassment in the workplace and, if a company that has been made aware of an employee issue with regard to harassment (as persistent gossip is defined), and has taken no reasonable steps to resolve the situation, employment law can be accessed for an Employment Tribunal. The employer would then be responsible for any compensatory measures deemed appropriate if found to be negligent.
Office speculation regarding, for example, the paternity of a pregnant woman's child, which is deemed offensive by the subject, would have to be addressed by the employer if brought to their attention and any internal disciplinary measures need to be seen to be taken. Under the Equality Act introduced in 2010, failure to resolve this particular situation would be covered by discrimination due to sex (only women can fall pregnant) and also under the ' pregnancy and maternity' characteristic. This Act has brought together a number of previously separate arms of legislation for a more concise set of stipulations regarding treatment of employees. These are outlined under 'protected characteristics' and cover almost all employees. The characteristics by which offence are considered as discriminatory are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. Our pregnant lady, therefore, who may have been the subject of verbal harassment would be legally justified to seek compensation through a tribunal.
So, with something as rife and natural as gossiping, how can a company and its individuals stop the rot before it threatens to bludgeon morale and negatively affect productivity? Here are a few steps that can help:
Take it from the top
When setting the environment for an office or workplace, the example must come from the top. Be it a team leader, an office manager or a CEO, the person at the top has to set the standards by which employees will take their template.
Have an open door
If employees are busy discussing the future direction of a company based on gossip alone, resentment and anxiety can ensue. Make sure that you promote an environment of openness, allowing employees to approach you with questions without fear of becoming 'suspect' if they do so. If the issue concerns all members of a workplace, hold a meeting to get the facts across. Don't single an individual out for making the scary move of questioning you, instead, treat your workforce as a team and impress upon them that you wish to encourage positive discussion of any issues they may have.
Negative to positive
If a 'zero tolerance' policy is applied to office gossip in a positive way, it will not be long before you will see the benefits. Encourage staff to be vigilant to negative gossip, and to refuse to perpetuate rumours without checking the facts. Employees will feel supported and supportive of each other if they are encouraged to point out negative gossip to each other and refuse to partake. This can have a sweeping effect and will eventually lead to more mutual trust and respect once the 'spoilsport' aspect has died away.
Make sure that positive communication is standard in the workplace. A weekly newsletter or memo outlining company productivity / decisions / direction will keep employees constantly informed and a suggestion box can be kept for any issues arising from the correspondence. These can then be addressed in the next memo / newsletter or discussed in regular team meetings.
If you are aware of gossip and you know the source, stop it in its tracks! Do not pass the gossip along, and where appropriate, tactfully speak with the protagonists and tell them you do not appreciate gossip and explain the harmful consequences it can cause. Don't accuse, but do highlight the negative aspects of spreading rumours. Encourage the cessation of gossip by not doing it yourself! Your colleagues will soon see you as being honest and therefore trustworthy in the workplace.
Make it known
Make sure that a zero tolerance policy toward gossip is part of the induction process and outlined in the company's handbook for new employees so that everyone is aware of what behaviour is expected of them from day one. Ensure that this policy is seen to be implemented and that internal disciplinary measures are taken where deemed necessary.
Do the right thing
If you see a fellow employee being quietly destroyed by gossip in the workplace and you feel unable to quell the rising tide of negative behaviour, report it! It is the duty of your superiors to create a good working environment, and nothing can undermine that quicker than an anxious workforce!
Let's face facts, gossip will happen. Our interest in the lives of others will not disappear overnight, but encouraging people to communicate directly with each other rather than behind each other's backs can only benefit a workplace environment. Remember, 'Loose lips sink ships!' and companies too...
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