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Psssssst... Heard the One About Office Gossip?

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about "fake news." Just like those phony email messages appearing to be from your local bank branch, fake news often includes misinformation posted to what looks like a trusted site. Still other venues include published articles from unethical "journalists" who simply make up their stories. No matter what venue it appears in, fake news is specifically designed to deliberately provide misinformation presented as the truth — all to either profit in some way, persuade people to think a certain way or, at the very least, question their own beliefs. In today’s Internet environment, these so-called news stories travel across the world in seconds. Some have called this practice "yellow journalism" and/or psychological warfare.

For some reason, this whole issue of fake news reminds me of a couple of age old sayings.

The first is, "Don’t believe everything you hear because there are always three sides to every story and then there’s truth." The second is, "Don’t believe everything you hear and only half of what you read." It seems that these two pieces of advice still stand strong today.

On the other hand, the issue of fake news reminds me of workplace gossip. Essentially, in my view, that’s what gossip is all about..."fake news." Especially since gossip is typically all about spreading unsubstantiated information that is either deliberately designed to hurt someone or, at the very least, has a negative impact on someone.

Gossip in the workplace doesn’t just hurt individuals, it hurts an entire organization. It will cause strained relationships between co-workers and conflict between different departments. It will destroy any sense of trust between people and cause everyone to second-guess each other’s intentions. Teamwork will suffer because smaller interest-based cliques of individuals will form, thus creating competition rather than collaboration. As a result, productivity and morale will decline, causing a toxic work environment. Employee turnover will soon add to the organizational problems.

Gossip and negativity is particularly rampant when an organization is under stress.

For instance, in an environment of potential job insecurity, employees will speculate about their organization’s future, whether their department will be subject to layoffs and whether they personally will be affected. Everyone becomes a watchdog, closely observing management behaviour, looking for any signs to substantiate what is being said and heard.

Of course, there will always be that one person who is the chief "rumour-monger," spreading gossip and stories. As you might expect, there may be a grain of truth in the story but in most cases, there are more inaccuracies than not.

That’s because individuals interpret what they hear from their own personal interest and expectations — which, in turn, colours their view of the information.

People who are known as gossips or rumour-mongers use this as a tool to bring attention to themselves. They see themselves as knowledge-seekers or information brokers; however, they typically have the tendency to embellish the story. At the very least, they’ll fill in the blanks. Many a gossip deliberately engages in this style of communication because they are angry, jealous or resentful of their targeted employee.

The bottom line is that letting negative workplace gossip flourish in your organization will lead to negativity and poor interpersonal relationships. All in all, gossip also has the ability to negatively impact productivity, morale and employee engagement, resulting in turnover.

Act quickly and don’t let gossip get the best of you.

No matter what, gossip or “fake news” can throw employees into turmoil. It is up to management to break the gossip cycle. Here are some tips to help you overcome gossip in the workplace:

Check the facts.

Before you do anything about gossip, make sure that you, as manager, are clear on the facts of the situation. If not, you might simply be replacing one set of inaccurate or “alternative facts” with another! If that’s the case, your own credibility will be challenged and that will make conquering the negative gossip even harder. Meet with your own manager to get the accurate story and then determine what information you can and cannot share. Discuss different solutions and decide on a plan for challenging the gossip cycle.

Avoid the “email blast.”

Sending out a policy reminder that gossip will not be tolerated tarnishes everyone with the same brush and serves only to upset everyone. On the other hand, the gossiper will only ignore it. An email blast is a coward’s method of dealing with a problem. It’s nothing more than an avoidance strategy. Your job as manager is to deal with the issue head-on.

Find the source.

It might take a bit of detective work, but take steps to trace the gossip back as far as you can. Address the employee(s) directly and confidentially. Question them regarding the source of their information and continue asking questions until you are satisfied as to the reliability of the information. Talk to the employee(s) about the negative impact of gossip and how their involvement hurts their own reputation. Direct the employees to stop engaging in the gossip and point out the potential consequences for any future inappropriate behavior.

Hold a team meeting.

Instead of discounting the gossip, it is important to shut down the gossip cycle as soon as you can. Hold a staff meeting and confront the gossip issue. Review the fake news, clarify and provide as much accurate, truthful information that you can. Be honest with employees if you can’t share some information but promise to keep people informed. Make it clear to employees that engaging in gossip is a violation of your human resource policies.

Keep communication lines open.

Keep in mind that rumour and gossip thrives in environments where there is a lack of information. So, if your organization is going through some sort of change where the end is not known, schedule your staff meetings frequently and provide updates. Prepare other managers by developing a question and answer document that managers can share with all employees. This strategy keeps communication consistent and attempts to answer questions that employees might have.

Provide employee tips and strategies.

Since gossip will continue in some form or another, teach employees a number of tips and alternative strategies to help them avoid getting caught in the gossip cycle. This includes simply walking away, checking the facts by asking a number of questions, directly confronting the gossiper and reporting individuals to management.

Stay connected.

Make it clear to employees that if they have issues or questions about what is happening at work, they are to come to management with their questions and concerns. This helps to alert the manager to issues that are arising and need to be addressed. Manage by wandering around, listening and learning. When issues are raised, listen carefully, take employee concerns seriously and seek ways to communicate the accurate information.

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