Commentary

March 1, 2013

Workplace gossip can be harmful to individual, organization

Part 1 of 3

As the Director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Program at the National Training Center and Fort Irwin, I have witnessed a growing concern in the effects of gossiping. As the EEO Director, I see too much of this, much too often. Repeatedly, I have had the duty of explaining the avenue of redress to an individual that was the brunt of office gossip. One of the things I have been asked many times is how to combat this destructive behavior. This series will address the concerns of senior management, DA civilians, family members, and contractors. I will also offer some solutions to this problem. At the end of this series I hope that we as a family at the NTC can learn that when we injure one another with harmful gossiping, it damages all of us.

It seems so harmless. The little chitchat at the water cooler or in the gazebo or at the bus stop about so-and-so, about someone’s relationship with someone else, the speculation about so-and-so – this is gossiping! Now, you may say, “I was just making idle conversation. I wasn’t trying to hurt feelings or damage reputations.” So, how can you tell the difference between harmless conversation and very harmful gossip? There is a huge difference, and it is important, because gossip that runs 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 targeted person. Here is a test: Consider the impact of what is being said. Does it cast negative slanderous remarks? Does it create rifts? Does it wallow 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.

Gossip hurts: Gossip has 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. Rampant negative gossip also results in the supervisor spending an enormous amount of time trying to figure out who said what to whom. Productivity is lost, as are good employees who do not want to work in such a toxic environment.

(Editor’s note: This is part one of three on the topic of gossip in the workplace.)




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