For the Business section of The Age, I was interviewed to provide expert comment on the impact of office gossip - and how to put an end to it.
Here's the article in full:
How to gag office gossip
Gossip is like cancer in the workplace. Here's how to stop it.
Gossip in a workplace is as ubiquitous as a water cooler. But like an elephant in a room few bosses want to see, if left unattended gossip can drain business productivity and sabotage morale.
Karen Johnston, owner of Treatment Plan Marketing in Ipswich, spent a decade managing employees in dental surgeries.
“The clinics were staffed by mainly females and I found gossip usually became worst when people were not happy with something in their own lives and would bring it to work,” Johnston says.
“Staff members would gossip about the hours, the jobs, their written job descriptions but you couldn't ignore and it hope it went away because, if left unchecked it can spiral out of control and I found it so important to nip it in the bud early to stop the 'mafias' you can see forming because those groups (of workers) can do a lot of damage if not broken up.”
Johnston says she usually found talking one-on-one with a staff member who had started “venting” usually uprooted the grapevine.
“I found if you just let them be heard and say 'look, I will look into this issue and come back to you' it usually goes away; but you must fulfil the promise and report back otherwise you will lose their trust.”
Office “pods” have gagged gossip in Linda Reed-Enever's business in Bendigo in regional Victoria. Reed-Enever launched ThoughtSpot PR in 2012 and today has 10 employees. She credits her office's open-plan layout and egalitarian desk clusters with eliminating office hours' rumours.
“You won't find a more bitchy industry than marketing so when I started my business I was adamant on having a fully open plan office making everything transparent, the good and the bad, because it means there is nowhere to hide,” Reed-Enever says.
“We still have our celebrity gossip and what did you do on the weekend chats, but as far as malicious attacks go, the open plan has worked for us because all managers sit with their teams in a pod of two or three desks and at a glance we can see the whole team, which has encouraged a team building culture we love.
“I always say to 'the girls' that work for me, 'I can fix anything' as long as I know what is going on so don't try to cover up because then I cannot do anything, and I won't trust you.'”
Melbourne team strategist Sandi Givens, whose specialty is helping workplaces improve communication, says gossip comes in two forms in a workplace and it is important to understand the difference.
“We are not saying never talk around the water-cooler about your kids or how your footy team played on the weekend – this type of chat can build a supportive office culture as its helps colleagues know each other as human beings,” Givens says.
“Where problems arise is when individuals engage in misdirected negative communications in a workplace. That type of gossip is detrimental to productivity and to morale.”
Givens has these recommendations for bosses and managers wanting to uproot an office grapevine:
Model behaviours you want your team adopting: if you don't tolerate gossip, don't gossip yourself;
Speak to workers about the tough issues: if you don't know how to, invest in management training;
Make yourself available: try to talk to each worker on a regular and informal basis to build trust and cut the chance of unhappy workers wrecking havoc with nasty gossip.
Corporate relations expert Tanja Lee Jones has managed staff during her 22-year career and agrees controlling workplace gossip – and its bedfellow, workplace bullying – is “one of the biggest challenges” small business owners face today.
If left unaddressed it can leads to staff turnover, and each time an employee leaves and needs replacing it costs a business about 1.5 times their annual salary, according to South Australia government business and industry research.
Jones says there are five key reasons people gossip:
To be right about their own convictions;
To unconsciously be the victim;
To be safe and fit in;
To feel significant and self-important;
To avoid responsibility.
If a boss is worried about the impacts of workplace gossiping on a business “start temperature gauging”, Jones advises.
“Start asking questions: am I talking negatively myself to my staff about other staff members, customers, suppliers? A manager cannot expect a team to speak 'for' each other if they don't do it themselves; a fish always sinks from the head, as the saying goes.”
I recently attended a three-day women’s festival that I attended for the first time in 2016. It’s never the same the second, third or umpteenth time around is it? First of all, there’s that ‘first time newness’ that we can only get once. “Wow! Look at that!” “Goodness, that’s amazing!” And so on … because we are seeing things through fresh, first-time eyes.
In our subsequent visits, while we look for that same magic, but logically know it will be different than our beloved ‘first-time’. We then start to notice what’s not there that we liked the previous year(s), and lament “But I really liked that!”
So this year, I decided to focus instead on what was new, different and intriguing. And that’s how I came across The Release Tree.