Psssttt! Meet me at the water cooler for some juicy gossip. (Or “instant message” me right now!)
Exchanging gossip and feeding rumors doesn’t work exactly like cartoons, a la “The Far Side,” might suggest. Most information is communicated the old-fashioned way: two or three employees huddle over a desk, their voices low and heads leaned in while they listen closely for the latest news.
Ogden Nash’s “I Have It On Good Authority” poked fun at gossip when he penned these opening lines: There are two kinds of people who blow through life like a breeze/ And one kind is gossipers, and the other kind is gossipees/ And they certainly annoy each other/ But they certainly enjoy each other/ Yes, they pretend to flout each other/ But they couldn’t do without each other.
“Gossip,” said one observer, “is what makes life interesting.”
But is gossip harmful or helpful? It depends, say business leaders.
“Office gossip and/or the informal sharing of information is a very valuable form of intelligence gathering,” said Greg Rose, marketing professor at the University of Mississippi. “I also think office gossip occurs most frequently in times of uncertainty. A friend of mine said that about 80% of office gossip is actually true. This surprised me, (but) he said that someone had done a study on it and that it was in his principles of management book.”
According to John Ford of The Business Journal of Charlotte, there’s another word for gossip: networking.
“Gossiping is OK if it is truly informational, not personal, and if it occurs in a climate of trust and openness,” he said. “Attempts to use gossip to undermine someone’s credibility or their reputation cannot be tolerated. And no secrets! Secrets create power for those in the know. For gossip to be beneficial, the power must be available to everyone.”
Promoting friendly alliances is another motivation for gossip, he said.
“If I gossiped with you, we became friends. Later, when one of us was in need, I would be inclined to help you,” he said.
When asked to speak off the record, business professionals around Jackson had plenty to say. When asked to talk on the record, most folks politely declined. That’s what the editor of The Business Journal of San Jose and other business writers who broached the subject learned when they asked for input. The BJSJ’s e-mail addressed “proved largely to be a dry well,” the editor wrote.
Archie King, LPC, a human resources consultant in Madison, said any time communication forms triangles within the workplace, where information is passed between others, the situation becomes harmful.
“Direct communication is positive within office settings,” said King. “You can begin to recognize triangling, where people speculate about what other people are doing or passing on information that may have been taken out of context. Communication is difficult enough without going through a third party.”
Even though gossip may be human nature, when does it start to raise a red flag?
“When it starts affecting the people within the organization, which in turn, affects the effectiveness of the organization,” King said. “It needs to be dealt with directly by supervisors and managers. Employees have to be told it’s counterproductive and is not acceptable within the organization.”
It’s just like any other expectation management has of employees, King said.
“Employees must understand what the expectations are,” he said. “And 90% of them will adhere to those expectations.”
Cases where employees solicit support for another employee through triangling can be positive — if the intent is positive, but “more often that not, the intent is negative,” he said.
Is gossip a serious problem in today’s workplace — or basically a nuisance?
“It depends on the circumstances,” King said. “Negative communication is never good — and that’s usually what gossip is.”
Nancye Combs of Louisville, Ky., who was named one of that state’s top five women business owners several years ago, was once the target of a rumor, spread by a “gossipmonger.”
“I can remember how many hours I spent in the bathroom crying, thinking she was going to ruin my career,” Combs told Business First of Louisville. Today, she advises businesswomen to ignore gossipmongers, the same advice her boss gave her at the time. “Ignore her, she’s a troublemaker. She’s never going anywhere.”
Terry Westbrook of Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes, PLLC, in Jackson, lives by several gossip rules: What I don’t know won’t hurt me. Better safe than sorry. And never stay in the company lunchroom for more than a minute at a time.
“Gossip is, by far, the most common source of hurt feelings in the workplace,” Westbrook said. “And I’m not faultless, but to avoid the opportunity to get myself into trouble, I do not, under any circumstances, ever, ever, enter the lunch room for more than one minute at a time. Longer than that, you’re going to hear something — but if I don’t know it, I won’t repeat it.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.