About That Gossip

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.

A business owner from Massachusetts called me the other day to talk about the increased comments he has received from multiple employees regarding the amount, nature, and severity of gossip among his workforce. He has now found himself acting more as a social worker, group counselor, and therapist than as a business owner. He is getting burned out on these high school actions and asked for guidance.

Gossip is a lot trickier than you think.

Gossip can refer to malicious or actionable talk about someone beyond the person’s hearing; it may involve untrue tales, as well as confidential and truthful remarks divulged inappropriately. Moreover, gossip can also be any talk of a person’s or institution’s affairs, whether personal or professional, innocuous, or slanderous (e.g., “Did you know John and Mary are dating?” “I have heard the company is up for sale.” “They want to fire Tim.” “You do know he has a drinking problem, right?”).

Regardless of degree, intent, or authenticity, workplace gossip can be very dangerous in that it can: erode trust and morale, account for lost productivity and wasted time, increase employee anxiety as rumors circulate, create divisiveness, and even lead to employee turnover (i.e., constructive discharge).

Seen any Christy Teigen tweets lately?

I proposed a three-step action plan for the business owner. First, develop a legal Anti-Gossip Policy. It must be “legal” since the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that “overly broad” Anti-Gossip policies containing language prohibiting negative or disparaging comments or criticisms about anyone; creating, and sharing or repeating, a rumor about another person; and discussing work issues or terms and conditions of employment with other employees, likely violates Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

The carefully-crafted policy must allow employees protected concerted activity, though address potential harassment, bullying, workplace violence, hostile work environment, verbal abuse, and disrespect. To that point, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission forbids gossip regarding an individual’s sex life, comments on an individual’s body, comments about an individual’s sexual activity, deficiencies, or prowess, or other lewd or obscene comments.

Second, encourage and train managers to address this topic openly, quickly, and calmly. Managers must establish a good example by not participating in gossip and minimizing it. Managers are the role models of the company culture; what they permit, will get repeated. A simple rule is to say nothing about Person A outside of Person A’s presence that one would not say in Person A’s presence. Managers must be able to distinguish between protected concerted activity and offensive behaviors and then take appropriate action immediately.

If managers hear questionable language, they should meet with the relevant parties as a group promptly and frame the meeting as indicative of coaching employees to improve their interpersonal skills, improving team morale and the company culture, and personifying a true open-door policy. Clear the air, be transparent, act like professionals.

Third, for each incident, the Manager must conduct timely follow-up (i.e., within 3-5 days) with the same employees who attended the previous meeting to evaluate improvement. While managers may not be able to ban gossip outright, they can certainly lead by example in limiting workplace gossip as much as possible.

Gossip is a lot trickier than you think.

Be extremely careful on this topic.

If not, I’ll tell you what the boss said about you know who.


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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.

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