What to do about gossip

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Frequent readers of my column know of my penchant for bouncing ideas off my friend Dave, a supervisor who lives in the Midwest. The other day it was Dave bouncing ideas off me. The topic? How to deal with an office gossip.

Seems an administrative assistant working in Dave's office has decided it's her mission in life to discuss the weaknesses of upper management - only not with upper management, but with everyone who reports to them.

According to Dave, the woman's demeanor is kind and concerned, yet at the same time condescending.

As Dave describes it, she puts on a professional smile while she's gently stabbing people in the back, so most folks don't realize the damage she's doing. And, because she's socially popular, people tend to listen to her.

This scenario was all too familiar to me. Years ago while working in San Diego, my boss's daughter would often "help out" during the summer to earn money for college. There was something I didn't like about her, but I couldn't put my finger on it. That is, until one day when she was talking with me as she walked behind me down a hallway. I could not see her face, I only heard her voice, and her words were terribly biting and demeaning regarding a fellow employee.

Shocked at what I heard, I turned around and questioned her comment. Her response was to look at me with feigned innocence and say, "but I said it with a smile."

Unbelievable. I realized her "concerned" facial expressions were nothing but camouflage for her deep cutting words. It was then that I realized what I didn't like about her.

The problem is that gossip can be very hurtful to people; even damaging to their careers. Sadly, this damage can occur whether the gossip is factual or not. Even worse, it can last a lifetime.

Simply stated, gossiping causes trouble. Yet it appears that human beings may be socially geared for gossip. So says psychologist Frank McAndrew, a professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.

McAndrew, who has published more than two dozen articles in scientific journals and is author of the book "Environmental Psychology," says "We can be moralistic about it and say only small people gossip, or people with nothing better to do. But I just think it's wired into us."

A recent survey found that 21 per cent of workers admitted to frequently participating in gossip
McAndrew believes that people used gossip in early civilizations to position themselves for higher status. He says "how successful you were at attracting mates and reproducing, depended, to a great extent, on your social skills and knowing what other people were up to."

If that's true, nothing seems to have changed much over the millennia. A recent survey conducted by the American Society for Training and Development found that 21 per cent of workers admitted to "frequently" participating in gossip, with an additional 64 percent gossiping "sometimes."

So if gossip is here to stay, how can we minimize its damaging effects? Several approaches are available and hold good potential. Here are just a few:

Educate people that their words become their future. Based on the principle "you go where you're focused," such education tries to help people see the ripple effects of how their focus impacts action. Negative focus creates conditions for ineffective and even detrimental choices.

To educate in this manner requires calling the issue for what it is, such as naming your workshop "the danger of gossiping and what you can do different." By openly bringing the issue to the attention of everyone in the office, gossipers are more likely to feel the peer pressure and think twice before opening their mouth.

Another way to stem gossip is confronting the gossiper directly. More aggressive in its approach, here is where you can make it clear that the gossip has to stop. You can create a company policy on how gossip will be dealt with, and lay it on the line (it is entirely reasonable and legal to create a policy on gossip).

When addressing the issue head on, it's a good idea to convey the hard truth that the gossiping has to stop or the person will be asked to leave.

Whatever approach you use, it is vitally important that we don't just tell people what not to do. We must give them positive, constructive alternatives to choose instead of the gossip.

For example, people who notice negatives things are valuable people - their insights help others identify what needs fixing so that they or their operations can be stronger. Therefore, if gossipers observe a weakness or negative trait, they can be shown a reasonable, professional method for approaching the person who has the "observed weakness."

It's never easy at first, but the processes can be established and put into practice, being modified as you go.

Many more solutions could be discussed than space allows, but the truth is that some people want to gossip. If we can't stop it, we can at least try to redirect the motivation behind it.

Copyright © Dan Bobinski, used with permission
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OLDER COMMENTS

while we work on importing them to the new system!

I am looking for advise on how to stop people from talking about other people in the office. These people are not really gossiping-but talking badly about someone that has only been working in our office for less than 6 months. I am "friends" with these people so I feel uncomfortable trying to steer them from the negative banter. Any suggestions?

Sandra

I agree that gossip can be redirected 'if' the individual is willing to do so. Gossiping might stem from a well-taught gene, or be fundamental to the personaility where they are hard wired to bring individuals down at every opportunity. The reason may not be so important as much as the reppercussions of what gossiping does to an organization, its team, individuals etc. Organizations have a right to grow their company in a healthy manner and if the gossiping is interfering then that is a performance issue and needs to be dealt with immediacy as it truely can destroy an individuals career, family and other major aspects of their lives. I beleive there should be a 'zero' tolerance policy in every company for gossipers.

Carmella Vermont

Hi Sandra,

I think that you should have a talk with your "friends" about the way they are maliciously talking about your new co-worker. People gossiped about me when I was the new kid on the block, and I ended up leaving the job after 2 years because I realized that they did it for entertainment purposes. It was very hurtful because I tried to be kind to those people, but they repaid me with terrible rumors. If they could, I believe they would try to ruin my career. No one deserves to be treated like that. I have absolutely no idea why you are "friends" with these people, but if you are a supervisor, you need to put your foot down. You can't allow that to continue. If you do, you will lose your genuinely kind employees because they will get tired and frustrated with ruthless gossips.

Tanya

Hi, Sandra,

Some 9:00 Monday morning tactics you might cosnider:

Develop personal strategies using honesty and humor for moving away from gossip or stopping gossip (but watch our for coming across as self righteous). For example: I’m doing my best to stop gossiping; lets talk about something else; excuse me, I need to zip my lips now; silence is my golden rule; I’m making an effort not to engage in gossip so I prefer not to have this conversation; This is just me, but i feel sort of uncomfortable talking about someone when they’re not here. Finish with something positive. e.g., By the way, what are you doing about…; jump in and change the conversation in a tactful way; judge the person being spoken about favorably; make a conscious choice to not believe what you hear or read; walk away from the conversation (if in a group of co-workers); keep a list of your values (or vision) near you (desk, purse, wallet, calendar, desk blotter, telephone); have a jar, on or in your desk, into which you’ll put some change whenever you catch yourself gossiping or being the listener; send consistent email reminders to your staff, team, colleagues about the deleterious effects of gossip; use posters to remind the department of the value of a gossip-free workplace, etc.; remind people at meetings and in small groups of your commitment to a gossip-free workplace; tug on your own sleeve consistently and remember to say something nice; be encouraged every time you have the impulse to gossip and don’t; take pleasure every time you catch yourself before uttering a negative phrase;

peter vajda

I work at a Hampton Inn as a housekeeper. Our Head Housekeeper steals not only our tip money from the rooms, but things from the hotel as well. The worst thing that she does; is she gossips about everybody. She says that this person said this about you, and how such-and-such said this about her. She gets everybody hating everybody else. It's ridiculous! And worst of all is that the manager knows that she steals, lies, and gossips, but she does nothing about it.

Shadoe Horse Cave, KY

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