It seems so harmless. The little chitchat at the water cooler about so and so. The debate over someone’s relationship with someone else. The speculation about so and so. Is it chitchat or is it gossip? How can you tell the difference? And who cares?
There is a very big difference, and it is an important one, because gossip run amok can be dangerous and destructive in a workplace. First, while light conversation can be value neutral, gossip is often negative, inflammatory and embarrassing to the person being spoken of. So how does one tell the difference between idle chatter or gossip? Here is a test: Consider the impact of what is being said. Does it cast negative aspersions? Does it create rifts? Does it exult in the misfortune of others? Does it have a negative emotional charge? Does it serve to perpetuate conflict or negativity? Is it hurtful or damaging? Is it something you would say in front of that person?
Technically, any sharing of trivial or unsubstantiated information can be considered gossip. But you have to consider the sentiment. For example, if it were rumored that a co-worker is being promoted, and you discuss it with a co-worker, is that gossip? If the discussion is hurtful or damaging or negative, then yes, it is gossip. But if it’s value neutral then it’s not. If the story is told with negativity and without good will, then it is gossip.
Why gossip hurts
Gossip can have many adverse side effects on an organization. It can increase conflict and decrease morale. It results in strained relationships. Gossip breaks down the trust level within the group, which results in employees second-guessing each other and ultimately running to the supervisor to clarify the directions or instructions, or to settle the differences that will arise. Gossip is the death of teamwork as the group breaks up into cliques and employees start refusing to work with others.
Gossip results in the supervisor spending an enormous amount of time trying to figure out who said what to whom. Or, worse yet, the supervisor struggles to explain to the manager that the on-going conflicts and communication problems within the workgroup are the reason work doesn’t get done only to hear the manager comment, “Why can’t you manage your team better?” Productivity is lost, as are good employees who do not want to work in that toxic environment.
What the employer can do
Gossip is as old as mankind. It is unrealistic to think we could free the workplace of gossip. It’s also conducted through the free will of employees, and regulating that is very difficult without creating a big brother climate. That being said, there are some things that employers can do to minimize negative gossiping and rumormonger: