Monday, May 21, 2007

Gossip at work

Another Globe article today (link in title) is about the controversial firing of 4 long-time employees in Hookset, NH, for gossiping. I read this article with a lot of empathy all the way around. The town administrator created a new position, with a generous salary and hired a woman (it isn't clear, but it appears she was already an employee, so she got an internal promotion). Then the rumors began about an affair between the married, male town administrator and the newly promoted woman, who is also married.

I have seen for myself the terrible impact that gossip can have on a workplace. What feels like "support" and "empathy" among the disaffected turns slowly into a consensus against one or more of their fellows. The Hookset article includes a quote from a psychologist on the "best way to handle gossip" in the workplace:

The best response to a rumor is a truthful rebuttal, said Nicholas DiFonzo , a psychology professor who studies rumors at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He said rumors can be deeply damaging, but he also supported [lawyer for the fired employees, B.J.] Branch's view of gossip as a normal way to work through uncertainty.

"People are going to try to figure out the facts of the matter, and they view that as their basic right," DiFonzo said.
While I would like to believe that the best rebuttal to rumors is a truthful statement, I don't believe it always works like that. A, the butt of the gossip can truthfully state that he chose B to be the best choice for this slot, and has no interest in B as an object of personal attention. But, people who have already concluded that A secretly lusts for B will believe that A is fooling himself and just hasn't realized that he's in love.

There is NOTHING more destructive of a harmonious work environment than gossip. People with the best intention in the world huddle together to provide support or try to figure out what is happening. But the result will tear their workplace apart. DON'T GOSSIP should be the mantra when we do orientation for new hires.

The article mentions several other situations in which gossips have either been fired or rules have been laid down allowing firing for gossip. I really feel uncomfortable about infringing on employees' rights to speech. But I can tell you how it destroys the fabric of a workplace. It's probably better to have rules disallowing gossip. What a terrible thing.

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