Gossip as a Workplace Communication Tool

I found out last week that my company is moving to an undesirable part of Manhattan, NY. Away from charming SoHo, to a few blocks west of one of the city’s eyesores, Penn Station. I didn’t find out through an official memo; I found out from a co-worker, who just happened to hear it through the grapevine. That unofficial communication was followed last week by an official announcement. Our intra-office telephone game is so effective, I heard about the general area of our new location months ago.

Companies often drag their heels in communicating important information to employees, so it’s a relief that we at least have gossip to tide us over, and enable us to do some advance planning.

Most still see gossip as negative, and I’ve heard that many, or even most, religions consider it immoral. I remember how impressed my mother was when one little girl at my sister’s birthday party sat silently, seemingly refusing to gossip and badmouth other children. I wonder, if now that she’s probably in the workforce, she’s still as good about sitting quietly with her hands folded in her lap as those around her gossip. It’s morally correct to avoid talking badly of those who aren’t there, and, therefore, can’t defend themselves. But what about the productive forms of gossip, such as the news of my office’s new location? Is it also wrong to gossip about that?

A blog in last week’s Huffington Post, “10 Highly Effective Ways To Silence Workplace Gossip,” directs readers on what to do if they find themselves the topic of gossip. The author, psychologist and executive coach Jonathan Alpert, assumes we all would be horrified to hear ourselves being gossiped about. But, to tell you the truth, I might be flattered. To be gossiped about in the workplace is to be cared about, whether for better or worse. And gossip sometimes can be the only way to get honest feedback. For instance, let’s say you overhear, or otherwise suspect, a co-worker you compete with to be badmouthing you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It would be my first tipoff that she feels threatened by me. I wouldn’t mind if a competitor felt threatened by me. It would make me feel more powerful. Or, on the negative side, there could be gossip that you’re on your way out. That’s good to know well in advance of it happening, and it’s often not the kind of news your boss will tell you more than a couple weeks (if you’re lucky) ahead of time. One of my friends was told she was being laid off about an hour before it happened, and was told, like a criminal, she needed to collect all of her things and be out of the building promptly at 5 p.m. She could have used a good office grapevine a month or two in advance to tip her off.

Whether it’s a new office location, or an impending layoff, companies are not usually generous about giving advance notice. They worry about sharing news before it’s official (all documents signed and legally approved), and in the case of a layoff, they worry about the outgoing person creating havoc. Sometimes news about new products (that come with a new or different workload) isn’t shared until the last minute in order to preserve a competitive advantage in the marketplace. You don’t want your competitors to know about your new product far enough in advance to create their own rival product, or to stymie your marketing efforts—and you don’t trust your own employees enough to keep their mouths shut about it.

The reason office gossip is so helpful is that companies often don’t trust their employees. The boss doesn’t trust employees enough to give them honest feedback about how they’re doing, and how their colleagues perceive them. So keeping tabs on your profile on the gossip network can be your best guidance on how you should change your approach to your work. Companies also don’t trust their employees enough to feel confident they will leave in a respectable way.

Is there any way to build trust from employer to employee? You could try conducting experiments in which you purposely leak information (true information, but maybe not the most sensitive), tell employees it’s an absolute secret, not to be revealed to anyone outside the company, and see what happens. How far does the news spread? Do your competitors find out about it? That would be the real test of trust. If you’re observant about it, you might even be able to figure out where the leaks are coming from, and focus your mistrust just on those people—meaning focusing on those people to be spoken to about the importance of keeping confidential information confidential. Would it be unethical to conduct such an experiment? I don’t think so—as long as the information you’re releasing isn’t false or damaging. The only subterfuge is that the information isn’t as sensitive as you’re leading employees to believe.

I’ve been trying for years to move over to a more exciting, glamorous publication than my own—to go from writing about the optical industry business to optical fashion—and I’ve always been excited by gossip. I’ve always kept my ears peeled for whispers that the job is finally mine. If people on their staff turn to look at me as I pass by in the hallway, I take it as a good sign, and hope to catch whispers of my name. All to no avail so far, but if I happen to be featured in their gossip, I’ll consider myself lucky.

What role does gossip play in your office communications? Is it such a terrible thing, or is it understandable, and even useful, at times?

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