At Work: Human resources - Leading people - Learning to tell good gossip from bad

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a Trustee of MedicAlert

Discussing other people is a natural, even useful human trait, but it should not get out of hand.

A chief executive friend recently expressed her concern at the amount of gossip at her organisation. But is gossip really a problem, and is there anything that managers can do about it?

The online dictionary Encarta defines gossip as "conversation about personal matters: conversation about the personal details of other people's lives, whether rumour or fact, especially when malicious".

Humans are programmed to interact socially - it is part of our evolutionary survival mechanism. In the context of work, it means we want to talk about each other. Gossip is a way of finding out what others are thinking to reinforce or challenge our own thinking and end up with a jointly established view. Gossip actually acts as a way of building relationships through the exchange of information and opinion.

I told my friend that gossip would happen anyway. It is as natural and necessary to human beings as breathing. The question is whether you can control it so that it promotes healthy relationship-building rather than nasty personal backstabbing.

When a group of friends discuss other people, they tend not to classify what they are doing as gossiping and rarely think of it as malicious.

We tend to say that others gossip, not ourselves.

We will happily listen to someone being critical of someone we don't like, yet we will switch off if they are disagreeing with our negative view or saying something positive about the object of our disdain.

If you follow a few simple guidelines, office gossip can actually be a force for good rather than something that leads to divisions among your staff.

It is important to give people enough information about the workplace so they are likely to discuss the information rather than personalities.

It's also worth agreeing a set of values and behaviours that clarify what is unacceptable in terms of discussing others.

If you suspect certain people are engaging in inappropriate gossip, make sure you address the issue. Don't ignore rumours, but confront them wherever possible. Make it clear that you consider personally hurtful discussions about others to be unacceptable. Your bullying and harassment policy should include a clear statement that malicious gossip comes under this heading and will be treated in the same way.

Finally, don't join in with it yourself, no matter what the temptation.

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