Every office has one: the person who is the People magazine of what’s going on and with whom. Office gossip is more than an occasional distraction and time waster. It can cause expensive turnover among employees AND clients. So come on managers, let’s face office gossip head on!

How big of a problem is office gossip? A recent survey of 2,000 employees found that on average, people are spending an hour each day gossiping!  Sure, gossip is a natural part of human behavior. But in the workplace, if left unchecked, it can cross the line into harassment and open employers to liability. No more idle talk from me. Here’s what to do.

#1. Don’t ignore it.

Most of us first experienced the unpleasantness of gossip when we were schoolchildren. Our parents and teachers counseled us to ignore it. To walk away. While that technique might work in the schoolyard, it can have disastrous affects in the workplace. As a manager, you simply cannot ignore continuous catty chit-chat. It sends the wrong message that the behavior is acceptable.

#2. Speak to its negative effects.

Appealing to a person’s sense of emotion isn’t effective when you’re dealing with office gossip. This isn’t about being nice to people; it’s about getting the job done.

So, rather than emphasizing how gossip isn’t polite, highlight that it distracts people from their duties. It prevents customer calls from being promptly returned. It pushes back deadlines. It costs MONEY. That should get their attention.

#3. Give examples of what to say instead.

Great managers do more than say what NOT to do; they say what TO DO. For example, say something like, “Sophia, instead of talking about a person’s personal life, I want you to comment on 9 to 5 life. Tell me what Neil is doing to help or hinder your work – not whom he’s dating.”

#4. Bring in HR.

If you’ve tried all these things and an employee is still spreading rumors and speaking ill of others regularly, hit the HR speed dial button. Human Resources can help the employee to see it from another perspective. HR can also reinforce how the chatter may violate company policies, and, if necessary, can guide you on next steps for discipline.

Why do some employees turn into giggling gossips? There are many root causes, but that’s beside the point.  As a manager, you need to take responsibility and control of the situation. Employees become experts in ineffective conduct because they are allowed do so. It might be easier in the short term to overlook the negative, hoping it goes away on its own. But the trouble is, in the long run, behaviors like gossip can become set in stone – with legal and ethical ramifications.

© Leila Bulling Towne 2011

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