Loose Talk

When gossip crosses the line.

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When gossip crosses the line

Idle chitchat around the water cooler could be just that: employees bonding over tales of epic weekends, loves lost or last month’s still-shocking Game of Thrones season finale. Or these careless whispers could be something more insidious. Swirling rumors about office affairs, impending layoffs or the new manager chip away at company morale and create a toxic atmosphere. Knowing how and when to put an end to office chatter takes a bit of finesse. Do it wrong and you may be looking at a lawsuit.

Negative gossip is an undeniable productivity killer. Forty-two percent of respondents to a June 2014 CareerBuilder survey named gossip as the number-two cause of productivity loss in the workplace. And gossip about an individual is more than just a time suck. The spreading of malicious rumors or innuendo about one person may fall under the heading of workplace bullying. Different from harassment — which targets a person based on their gender, race or ethnicity and is illegal — workplace bullying is not against the law per se but just as destructive.

“I remember working with a big call center and the personal gossip was running rampant, creating a stressful environment,” says Molly Kelley, a senior human resources business partner with Xenium HR, about a case of bullying. “The company eventually put a blanket ‘no gossip allowed’ policy in place that was in the handbook for years.”

Problem solved, right? Actually, no. “A blanket ‘no gossip’ policy potentially puts a gag order on issues like unequal pay, the right to unionize and safety concerns,” explains Kelley. These topics are all protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

The National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel released a 30-page report in March that gives examples of lawful and unlawful employee handbook language. Some of it addresses gossip. The differences look subtle to the untrained eye. For instance: “Never publish or disclose [the employer’s] or another’s confidential or other proprietary information” was found to be unlawful. Meanwhile, “Misuse or unauthorized disclosure of confidential information not otherwise available to persons or firms outside [employer] is cause for disciplinary action, including termination” is fine.

Employees have the right to discuss wages and working conditions, but what happens when it get personal? Kelley offers Xenium’s recommended language around gossip, which forbids, “Excessive personal conversations or ‘gossip’ which negatively impacts civility and decorum in the workplace.”

Even with the best employee handbook language and policies in place, gossip will always be a part of the social fabric of the workplace. “It’s a low-hanging-fruit way for people to bond,” says Tanya Porter, HR director for NWEA, a nonprofit Portland-based educational software company that creates tests to assess students’ abilities and needs. Porter admits that every now and then, even HR professionals talk in a “non-solution-oriented mode. We sometimes have to check ourselves when speaking to a colleague.”

However, juicy tidbits about who is dating whom or a sales retreat that got out of hand may be more than a salacious story and something that HR wants to know about. “Ninety percent of the time rumors like this turn out to be true and we have to address them,” Porter says. She advises other HR professionals to take chatter like this seriously.

Susan Wallin, director of HR services for Boly:Welch, agrees. “When the gossip becomes a reality, we have to manage that reality,” she says. Wallin calls workplace dating a primary example of a situation that often bears toxic talk, particularly if one or both of the parties is married. Rumors about workplace theft or an executive who is acting strangely or a smelly co-worker should all be investigated by HR and treated appropriately.

Speculation about the organization should also be addressed quickly as it creates anxiety and uncertainty throughout the company, breaks down teams and could send valuable workers looking for new jobs. “I’ve dealt with a company that was bought and sold several times,” says Wallin. She reported that the snowballing rumors around the multiple sales created a toxic, unproductive atmosphere. As a balm, she suggested management be as transparent as the situation allows. “In a case like this, it’s best when information is shared from the top down.”

Destructive and time consuming, gossip also makes the gossipers look bad in the eyes of their co-workers. It would seem that gossip is a lose/lose proposition. However, new work by evolutionary physiologist Robin Dunbar finds that loose talk may have a positive side.

Research documented in a November 2014 article in The Atlantic by Julie Beck finds that gossip is “a way to learn about cultural norms, bond with others, promote cooperation, and even, as one recent study found, allow individuals to gauge their own success and social standing.” As an example, the article cites a 1985 study in the Journal of Applied Communication Research in which gossip was shown to “help recent hires adjust to their new jobs, by filling them in on things like office expectations and what they shouldn’t say to the boss.” In the piece, Dunbar goes so far as to say, “Gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible.”

Gossip in the workplace is not going away anytime soon, and that’s okay. We need to talk to our co-workers to know where we stand, how to act and if we are being treated fairly. But when the talk turns nasty, it’s time to walk away and say nothing at all.

Bad attitude

Cynicism about other people may have a negative effect on income, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Although it has long been associated with poor mental and physical health, the latest findings establish a link between cynicism and the amount of money a person makes. Cynical individuals are more likely to avoid collaboration and trust in favor of monitoring and control, the study’s authors say. “As a result, they are less likely to reap the benefits of joint efforts. We show cynical beliefs at baseline undermined an income increase in the course of the following nine years.”