“Can you believe how Jim talked to Stacey in the meeting….what was he thinking?” “You won’t believe what I heard about John.” Workplace gossip can seem harmless and fun, perhaps even helping to break up the monotony of the day or spice things up. But, what’s the overall effect of gossiping and what does it really say about an organization?
Here’s the thing about gossip…..it’s usually just casual ‘chitter chatter’ about other people that includes, for the most part, details that aren’t confirmed. When people don’t know the full story they tend to make up the information in between, making assumptions and injecting their own beliefs, values and perceptions to complete the story. Have you ever been the subject of gossip and when the ‘story’ gets back to you, you can’t believe how it’s been twisted and fabricated to include things that were never said or ever happened? It can be very hurtful, disrespectful and can create a toxic environment where performance suffers. Spreading rumours and labeling people and situations without the full truth being known can be more damaging than other more obvious unacceptable workplace practices.

Gossip shows up as part of workplace culture. And this culture reveals the truth about how an organization operates. It’s the sum of all the values, beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, behaviours and perceptions that are both formally written or spoken and for many others, unspoken. If organizations continue to turn a blind eye to this type of behaviour, whether it be seemingly harmless gossip or more serious forms of unacceptable conversations such as sexual harassment, the impact on the bottom line can be unrecoverable. Organizations cannot afford to enable these types of behaviours or risk creating informal acceptable practices that cause good employees to leave, performance to decline and legal complaints to be filed, including human rights applications and constructive dismissal lawsuits. Ultimately, this leads to a disengaged workforce and damage to your reputation and brand.

Here’s what you need to do to mitigate the potential risks. Firstly, understand what your workplace culture is by conducting both formal surveys and informal walk-abouts. It’s not just about whether employees follow your formal policies and procedures, but the other ‘accepted’ behaviours that are showing up regularly. Secondly, remember that what you permit, you promote. Everyone needs to be walking the talk, from the top down. If even one employee is getting away with unacceptable behaviour or one leader is not dealing with the behaviour, it’s all for not. Workplace culture is a learned behaviour and it can only be changed if you consistently address it. Lastly, recognize that establishing and maintaining a workplace culture requires an ongoing effort that is not a one-time fix. If you need support, use trained Human Resource professionals from either within or outside of the organization to make sure you create the right systems to minimize workplace gossip and maximize your bottom line.