Three steps to help build an anti-gossip culture

Sometimes human nature isn’t pretty. In a recession, employees anxious about their jobs are more likely than usual to engage in sniping and backbiting – playing a real-life version of “Survivor” in which they try to stay on the island by getting others kicked off. This kind of pernicious workplace gossip can bring an already stressed organization to the edge of disaster. And a lot of employers already realize this. An exclusive online poll of HR pros for The HR Cafe found that almost two-thirds of respondents said workplace gossip was a big problem in their organizations. Some 23% of respondents had already taken steps in this direction, while another 40% said they were concerned they hadn’t done enough.

But banishing workplace gossip isn’t something you can do by sending a memo. It’s a question of culture, and changing culture takes a multipronged effort contributing to a positive culture that resists workplace gossip want to consider these three steps:

  • Write and enforce a clear policy,
  • Confront the worst offenders, and
  • Engineer social pressure to discourage gossip.

An anti-gossip policy won’t do the trick all by itself. But it’s the base on which to build your other efforts. A policy may also help shield you legally against any charges of defamation by employees who feel their reputations have been tarnished. Key to a policy is a good definition of workplace gossip. Webster’s says it’s a “rumor or report of an intimate nature.” One company executive defines it as “negative communication outside the presence of the subject of the communication.” You could have a free-standing anti-gossip policy, or tuck it into a broader policy on respect for co-workers. You’ll need to decide how severe you want to make the penalties. Progressive discipline may be most appropriate.

Nothing shows you’re serious about quashing harmful workplace gossip like swift action against the worst offenders. Once your policy is in place and has been communicated to all, you may want to call these people on the carpet. Explain why gossip is harmful to the organization and what they can expect if they persist in their objectionable conduct. And remind them that you’ll be checking with co-workers to see whether they’ve continued to talk about others behind their backs.

As we all know from experience, peer pressure can be just as powerful – or more so – than official reward or punishment in modifying people’s behavior. If you can influence employees in such a way as to create a social stigma around negative workplace gossip – “it’s really not cool to do that” – you can minimize the chances of it occurring.

Best bet: Enlist the support of natural leaders in each department – people that others see as unofficial arbiters of what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not. These people may or may not have a managerial title. Of course, you need to loop the official managers in on what you’re doing and get their buy-in. You and your allies can set the tone.

Consider these techniques:

  • Walk away or change the subject when someone tries to initiate a round of gossip.
  • Tell the gossipers: “I don’t like talking about other people because I don’t like them talking about me.”
  • Or respond: “I hadn’t heard that about Ms. X. Let’s go ask her.”

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