Susan Heathfield is an HR and management consultant with an MS degree. She has covered HR for The Balance Careers since 2000.
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Updated July 25, 2019
Gossip is rampant in most workplaces. Sometimes, it seems as if people have nothing better to do than gossip about each other. They talk about the company, their coworkers, and their managers. They frequently take a partial truth and turn it into a whole speculative truth.
They speculate about the company’s future, whether coworkers will get fired, and what other employees are doing in their personal lives outside of work. In short, employees are capable of gossiping about anything—and they do—in a workplace that fails to manage gossiping employees.
Many managers turn a blind eye to employee gossip (or worse, participate in it). It results in low employee morale and a toxic culture.
In one company, employees knew that the minute they shared information with their marketing manager, he would share it in his one-on-one meetings with every other coworker. The department’s morale was low, and the gossip made the employees distrust each other and not share anything with their manager—all of it the manager’s doing.
Many employees gossip about the amount of money they make—and often, they don’t tell the truth. So, unhappy coworkers beat a path to the Human Resources’ door asking about their own salary.
By law, companies cannot prohibit employees from discussing their salaries, although many companies do have such policies. Their intention is to avoid problems, but they are violating the law in so doing. Employers may not restrict employee discussions about salary.
Expect a certain amount of gossip; people want to know what is going on in their workplace, and they like to discuss work issues. The key is to know when the gossip is out-of-hand. You need to act if the gossip is:
- disrupting the workplace and the business of work,
- hurting employees’ feelings,
- damaging interpersonal relationships, or
- injuring employee motivation and morale.
If you find yourself having to address gossip frequently, you may want to examine your workplace to understand the consistent themes in the gossip. Consider that you may not be sharing enough information with employees. It is also possible that employees don’t trust you and are afraid to ask about important topics.
When employees don’t trust their manager or feel that they lack information, they make up information to fill in the blanks. That information is often false, but people may believe it and make decisions based on that information. Or they speculate which can also damage decision making.
The results can be terrible and damaging to employees’ careers and company morale. For instance, if employees hear rumors of layoffs, they may start looking for new jobs and leave when in reality, their jobs were not under threat. Turnover can be very expensive.
If gossip has not been managed in the past, gossip tends to become a negative aspect of your work culture. So, don’t let negative gossip go unaddressed.
If employees are talking about other employees in a negative manner, it can have serious consequences. Frequently, in a toxic gossip culture, there is a small group of employees who cause problems. They often have power and bully other employees and often can bully the boss.
You can manage gossip exactly as you would manage any other negative behavior from an employee in your workplace. Use a coaching approach, when possible, to help the employee improve his or her behavior. Gossip is often a life-long habit and breaking it can take a great deal of effort. Managers who ignore gossip can destroy a department.
But, when needed, gossip management starts with a serious talk between the employee and the manager or supervisor. If discussion of the negative impacts of the employee’s gossip does not affect subsequent behavior, begin the process of progressive discipline with a verbal warning, then a formal written, verbal warning for the employee’s personnel file.
You absolutely should fire an employee who continues gossiping after participating in coaching. One toxic person can drive your good employees out, especially if they see that the behavior is going unaddressed.
If you assertively deal with gossip, you will create a work culture and environment that does not support gossip. You need to answer your employees’ questions directly and honestly to avoid work-related gossip.
If the gossip is personal, you must go to the employees in question and make it clear that their coworkers are not an appropriate topic.
“Who gossips to you will gossip of you.” -Turkish proverb