Publication: Christian Science Monitor
Marilyn Gardner | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
June 2, 2008
Policies to quash such chatter, including job termination, may boost
morale and the bottom line.
Reporter Marilyn Gardner discusses gossip and productivity.
Just a year ago, the atmosphere in Sam Chapman's small public relations
firm was often tense.
"We had information leaks, we had disgruntledness, we had competitors
finding things out, and we had sniping about senior management policies,"
says Mr. Chapman, CEO of Empower Public Relations in Chicago. "People
would stop talking when you walked by."
A life coach identified the problem: gossip. Determined to elevate the
tone, Chapman took dramatic steps. He fired three employees for gossiping.
He also established a strict policy, turning the whole office into a
In workplaces everywhere, gossip remains a daily fact of life. Around
water coolers, behind closed doors, and in e-mails, employees whisper
about everything from office romances to rumored mergers and layoffs.
Defenders insist that this chatter is often harmless, giving workers a
window on legitimate news. Critics charge that it can be insidious and
malicious, lowering morale.
"Gossip can be a problem if unaddressed, or it can play a useful role,"
says Dennis Reina, author of "Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace." "It
can be a beacon in letting leaders know that there are issues that need to
be dealt with in appropriate, constructive ways."
Chapman defines gossip as "negative communications outside the presence of
the subject of the communication." Calling it "a productivity killer," he
adds, "It hurts the gossiper and the gossipee. Gossipers are wrecking
their own reputation by talking about others. Gossipees are hurt because
they're being maligned."
To quash such talk, Chapman devised a policy for his staff of 17: "If I
hear you gossiping about somebody, we send you back to the person about
whom you were gossiping and you tell what you said. That dispels all the
He is not the only employer to fire people for allegedly gossiping. A year
ago, four town employees in Hooksett, N.H., were dismissed for spreading
rumors about a town official. The women denied the charges, and last month
two of them settled lawsuits against the town.
Yet punishing workplace gossip is not the answer, some employment experts
argue. Creating ways to deter it is.
"Gossip is a fixable offense, not a fireable offense," says Rachelle
Canter, author of "Make the Right Career Move." "Firing someone for
gossiping is an extreme measure and one that won't eliminate gossip but
rather send it further underground, where it can do more harm."
In spite of its negative connotations, gossip can play an important role
in policing behavior, notes David Sloan Wilson, a biology professor at
Binghamton University in New York.
"Gossip is often highly moralistic and functions as a social control
system," he says. "The first thing that happens when there's a social
transgression is gossip. Often it's the only thing that needs to happen.
We can use it to punish transgressions by social exclusion and shunning."
If employees are happy, they will tend to use gossip for benign purposes,
Professor Wilson adds. "But if they perceive management as the enemy, they
will gossip for their own interest. That will not be in the interest of
management. The solution is not to end gossip but to make the company more
Yet Chapman defends his no-gossip policy, noting that the culture in his
gossip-free office has changed markedly. Business has doubled in a year,
he says. He is writing a book, "The No-Gossip Zone." He's even fielding
calls from those in other professions. "I've had a lot of ministers reach
out to me, trying to deal with gossip inside their congregations."
Calling gossip "an explosion of bad work energy," he says, "Think about
the positive energy you replace it with."
Employers who identify gossiping as grounds for discipline and termination
need to notify employees in advance, preferably in writing, says Craig
Annunziata, managing partner of Fisher & Phillips, an employment law firm
Despite efforts to stop rumors, situations may still arise where
termination is the only resolution.
"If gossip runs counter to your company values or creates a legal
liability, you've got to act on that," says Bruce Clarke, president of
Capital Associated Industries, a nonprofit employers association in
Raleigh, N.C. "If one employee is defaming another and you don't take
action to change the false story, in most states there's a potential
Yet even Chapman makes exceptions for some forms of gossip. He emphasizes
that his no-gossip policy applies only to interactions with colleagues and
clients. "It's OK to talk about public figures," he says. "We still gossip
about Britney Spears and Eliot Spitzer."