Water cooler chats can be great for your work environment and even boost collaboration, but it’s gone too far if gossip begins to show up. Workplace gossip has the opposite effect and can lead to reduced productivity, as well as hurt feelings and potential workplace harassment problems.
When an employee encounters workplace gossip, they’ll probably turn to HR for help. Let’s dive into what workplace gossip is, the effects it has, and a few strategies you can use to help nip gossip in the bud.
Understanding Gossip in the Workplace
Let’s start with the basics: what is workplace gossip? Gossip counts as any informal communication between two or more coworkers that’s typically about someone else’s personal or private life. If a team member shares something about themselves, that’s not gossip. When that information is then repeated, that’s gossip.
There are different types of gossip, and some aren’t super consequential—while others can be detrimental. For example, sometimes coworkers might just gossip about someone’s new haircut or why they’re leaving work 15 minutes early on Fridays. Sometimes it might even be positive, like “Cheryl in accounting is adopting a child” or “Ted and Lucy are getting married.”
Other times, gossip might veer into the completely inappropriate where coworkers are discussing very personal matters, like employee health issues, criminal background, sexuality, religious practices, and family relations. That’s where workplace gossip isn’t just chatter but workplace misconduct.
The Effects of Workplace Gossip
Workplace gossip is not something to take lightly or brush under the rug in hopes that it disappears. There are some serious effects of workplace gossip that can hurt your team, your company, and your workplace culture. Here are some of the effects of workplace gossip:
- Reduced trust and morale. Gossip erodes trust and morale. When someone knows that their teammates are talking about them, they’re not going to trust those people, and the whole team will have a lower morale.
- Reduced collaboration. When teams can’t trust each other, you run into reduced collaboration and workplaces that aren’t functioning well. When gossip is running wild, it’s hard to trust each other and focus on the project at hand.
- Lower productivity. Gossip leads to lost productivity and wasted time. Simply put, it takes away from what your team should be working on and moves the focus onto something else. Even positive gossip does this.
- Legal and ethical implications. Bad news: there can be real and serious consequences from gossip. People have gotten fired and struggled to find new employment from the office rumor mill. Gossip can leave HR teams having to deal with legal and ethical implications..
Strategies to Address Workplace Gossip
So workplace gossip is bad news. What can you do about it? Luckily, there are some great strategies that you can use to prep your HR department for workplace gossip and help address the potential problems early on before they escalate into a crisis. Here are some of our top tips for addressing workplace gossip.
- Develop a comprehensive communication policy
First things first, set up a communication policy that outlines what types of workplace communication are acceptable and what ones are not. This policy can be a great way to encourage positive communication, as that’s one way to help weed out gossip. It’s also a great way to give yourself guidelines to fall back on when dealing with workplace gossip.
A comprehensive communication policy might include some of the following:
- A definition of what gossip is
- A clear statement that workplace gossip isn’t tolerated in your workplace
- Some topics that employees might gossip about that are strictly off limits
- A definition of workplace misconduct and workplace bullying or harassment
- Clear consequences for ignoring the communication policy (like one warning followed by disciplinary action)
A communication policy is also an opportunity for your team to provide guidance and coaching to employees on acceptable workplace communication. You might hold training on it, or you might approach coaching in a different way.
- Promote transparency and open dialogue
Sometimes gossip is the result of a lack of information, and transparency and open dialogue can help stop that gossip in its tracks. Transparency promotes open communication, so it’s a great idea to focus on transparency as a way to reduce gossip. One great way to do this is to practice it yourself. Keep the HR department a place of open dialogue where employees can come for honest answers to their questions—instead of turning to the rumor mill.
You can also encourage further transparency by having team leaders focus on it as well. Giving team members time to discuss their concerns and ask questions in team meetings can promote transparency, dialogue, and keep employees from needing to discuss the topics elsewhere in potentially harmful ways.
- Investigate complaints and gathering evidence
Let’s say you get complaints about workplace gossip. What do you do then? The first thing you may want to do is investigate the complaints and find out what’s really happening. You might talk with the employees who brought it to your attention, you might try to determine who the victim is and talk with them, and you might observe the gossip yourself to try and determine the intent. If the gossip seems fairly well-meaning, you might just remind employees about using their time wisely and avoiding discussing other employees.
If the gossip isn’t positive, you may need to delve deeper into the problem and potentially implement disciplinary measures. It might just be a verbal or written warning the first time. It’s up to you and what you outline in your communication policy.
- Provide clear channels for conflict resolution
Sometimes gossip can come from conflict. Most of your employees aren’t out there trying to be malicious, but there can be incidents where employees are having conflict about something else that leads to an escalation of gossip (and then more conflict, unfortunately). That’s why conflict resolution channels matter.
Give your team somewhere they know they can go if something isn’t right. A lot of American employees are intimidated by needing to report something to HR, so it’s important to communicate these channels clearly to employees, so they know what to do and aren’t scared.
You might consider offering conflict resolution training, you might provide a team member to be a conflict mediator, and you might offer resources employees can turn to. The goal is just to make it all clear for employees, so they have somewhere better to go to than turning to gossip.
- Implement training programs on professionalism and respectful behavior
Again, most of your employees aren’t out there trying to be malicious to each other. So a few key training sessions on professionalism and respectful behavior can be a great way to help them understand what’s acceptable and what’s not, so no one is accidentally crossing the line. Think of training programs as a great way to prevent gossip before it’s happening by educating your team. Plus these training programs can be a great way to solve other HR challenges.
- Implement appropriate disciplinary actions
If the gossip is swirling and it just won’t stop, it’s time to take disciplinary action. No one likes to be the bad guy, but disciplinary action sends a strong message about how gossip is unacceptable in your workplace. How do you know if you should take disciplinary action? Basically, if an employee is violating the guidelines in your communication policy, it’s time. You can also consider these guidelines. Disciplinary action is necessary when gossip is:
- Interrupting work
- Hurting employees’ feelings
- Hurting teamwork or collaboration
- Leading to absences or lower productivity
Disciplinary action can start with warnings and lead to extreme measures like firing someone. The goal is to outline what your policy is and then stick to it. That makes disciplinary action fair, and it’ll help you avoid the effects of workplace gossip.
Overall, gossip isn’t a friend to your workplace. It interrupts work, gets in the way, and can even hurt feelings and damage relationships. As an HR manager, you might find the responsibility of handling gossip on your shoulders. Luckily, these strategies can help you confidently put a stop to workplace gossip and can help create an environment where your team can thrive.
Workplace gossip is only one thing affecting your employees’ wellbeing, and stopping it is only the beginning of supporting your team’s wellbeing. Three out of four HR leaders say their wellness program is very important or extremely important to employee retention. Talk to a wellbeing specialist to learn more about creating an environment that is beneficial to your employees’ wellbeing.
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The Gympass Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.