Rid your office of backstabbers

How good managers can control counterproductive workplace gossip.

If you can't say anything nice about someone, don't say anything at all. We all know that sticking to that motto can be an uphill battle, especially when character assassination ranks as a leading workplace pastime. If not for rumours, how would we ever make interesting conversation?

The office water cooler has long been a place to chit-chat about the latest company news and to swap colourful tales. In a day and age when tabloid-style publications dish out a steady diet of dirt and people vie to tell their innermost embarrassments on prime-time television, though, the nature and potency of gossip may have hit new lows. Factor in the Internet and e-mail, and rumours can spread as fast as a nasty virus.

Pretending that none of us ever gossips is ridiculous. We all do it. You hear a juicy rumour and find it extremely challenging to keep it under wraps. Eventually, you tell one person, if and only if, they promise — no, swear — they'll never repeat it to anyone else. You know full well they will, but you just have to spill the beans, convinced you are sharing crucial, meaningful material.

Much of what winds up on the office grapevine is actually based on intuition, guesses and interpretations of body language. People are often more interested in the fact that your door and blinds are closed than in what you are actually discussing.

But can anything good come of workplace gossip? Does it ever fill a need?

Cy Charney, a Toronto-based performance management consultant and author of The Instant Manager, believes office gossip is unavoidable. “Wherever you have people, you will have gossip,” says Charney. “It becomes a form of therapy to talk — ventilate — about fellow workers behind their backs.”

Sometimes office chatter can be a way to blow off steam. Maureen Bogoroch-Ditkofsky, a lawyer and facilitator of leadership and personal development workshops in Ontario and Saskatchewan for the past 20 years, believes there are systemic reasons why people gossip. Tension within an office, she says, can easily churn into gossip sessions, which help to satisfy the need for power and control. “It is often thought that policies and procedures that encourage micromanagement and where innuendo, rather than communication, is the order of the day will be a breeding ground for bad gossip,” says Bogoroch-Ditkofsky.

Still, sometimes such sharing can foster closer business relationships, relieve accumulated stress and even result in a team working more effectively together. It's the old safety-in-numbers theory. A certain amount of small talk creates a sense of camaraderie and humanizes the workplace. But finding the correct balance is essential.

We all know far too well the popular image of gossips: busybodies who can seriously undermine the effectiveness of workplace relationships. Such people are intent on stirring things up; the information they circulate is often intended to cause harm and may or may not be true. Its root is often envy.

Charney attributes an unhealthy level of gossip to a managerial inability to deal with differences of opinion and personality. “We are not very comfortable confronting issues and tend to confront people, which leads to conflict,” he explains. “Many people hate conflict, therefore they resort to gossip to reduce stress.”

Building a culture that is supportive rather than overly competitive will set a more positive tone. Managers need to train their employees to communicate and give feedback in a non-threatening way through role-playing and coaching sessions, and then encourage them to talk to the source of their frustration.

In her 1999 book, A Safe Place for Dangerous Truths: Using Dialogue To Overcome Fear and Distrust at Work, Annette Simmons outlines how to help employees discover and improve their bad communication habits. In one survey, she found that 93% of people admitted to lying regularly at work. “When people in a group improve their ability to talk to each other, they spontaneously improve their ability to work together,” says Simmons. “When they learn how to discuss the undiscussable, they learn how to solve the unsolvable.”

We all have likely endured a rumour monger who revels in making others look bad to make himself (or herself) look good. Such sniping and intrigue can definitely chip away at authority and generally pollute the workplace atmosphere. Just ask Alicia Domjamovic (not her real name), a recent radiology grad who works at a Halton-area hospital, near Toronto. Landing her first real job has forced her to be a quick study in survival skills. “People are always bickering and backstabbing one another, and the morale at work is very low,” says Domjamovic. “When I have a work-related concern, I really don't know whom I can trust. I feel I should be able to rely on the experience of my co-workers, but I fear my issue will be twisted, exaggerated and spread to others by noon.”

Layoffs in health care are prevalent, and Domjamovic says some co-workers complain to management to secure their own jobs. She tries to steer clear of the gossip sessions that proliferate in her work environment, but working so closely with others, it is often hard to avoid.

Not surprisingly, gossip is a chief reason people leave their jobs. Why work somewhere if you can't trust the people you work with? So what can an effective manager do to control workplace gossip?

Brian Mullen, director of human resources at Dofasco in Hamilton, Ont., finds gossip is a drain on energy and productivity. To discourage it, he suggests you cultivate an open and honest work environment, as well as a clear message that gossip and malicious rumours will not be tolerated. “You need to be consistent,” Mullen stresses. “The intent is to have a positive work environment for all employees, and many times gossip creates a very negative environment. Direct confrontation is often effective, since backstabbers often shy away from confrontation. Most importantly, deal with rumours immediately.”

Experts agree that management's role is to set an example — and to send the message that it's up to each individual to make the choice to participate in office gossip or not. Even by listening to gossip, an employee can appear to be a collaborator. And, if they listen, can they be sure that the gossiper is not spreading rumours about them? Suppressing bad gossip demands self-discipline — and individuals have to be willing to take a stand. One human resources manager offers this advice for employees who want to fend off gossip: Try asking the perpetrator, “Can I help you solve this problem?” That approach shows that you want to find solutions, but not indulge in nitter-natter. If the answer is no, direct the gossip back to the appropriate person who can help resolve the matter.

Dr. Arky Ciancutti, co-author of Built on Trust: Gaining Competitive Advantage in Any Organization, says supervisors need to exercise their right to provide consequences for inappropriate behaviour. And when it comes to workplace gossip, silencing it may be easier said than done. Ciancutti insists that change will only occur under the following conditions:

1. When employees realize that they're only hurting themselves.
2. When the consequences are painful.
3. When workers recognize their participation in the problem.
4. When they recognize that they can control their own behaviour.

Remember the “broken telephone” game we all played as children? The last person never tells the story the same way the first person told it or intended it to be told. Left unchecked, workplace rumours can quickly spiral out of control.

Imagine arriving at work tomorrow morning and discovering that your employees have stopped gossiping, started speaking up about their ideas and concerns, are completing their tasks on time and are conducting productive meetings. Ciancutti says this can happen — but only when people trust one another. There are invisible emotional dynamics that are always in play when people work together. “Trust is the most powerful tool an organization can possess,” says Ciancutti. “Without trust, simple fears, poor communication and many other natural human emotions can be your biggest obstacles to achieving business success.”

There will always be those who struggle with the question of whether they should keep information to themselves. It may help to remember the old adage: loose lips sink ships.