Almost every office has a gossip. According to a BetterBuys survey, over 50% of employees know the kind of person that shuffles over to co-workers’ cubicles and starts sentences with “Did you hear?” or “Can you believe so-and-so did that?”
Gossip may seem harmless, but all too often it can become destructive to your small business. It’s not just a productivity killer that keeps employees—those talking and those being talked to—from working. An International Journal of Human Resource Management paper found that “33% of the people who engage with the negative job related gossip were found to have cynical behavior against their organization and colleagues.”
In other words, unchecked gossip can eventually infect an entire organization, spreading cynicism to others and souring interpersonal relationships, morale and loyalty to your business.
Gossip is not something you can afford to ignore. Here’s how to deal with gossiping employees.
1. Give Gossips Less to Gossip About
Think of a gossip like a fire: The less fuel you give it, the less it will spread. One way to do that is to be more transparent about your business.
Gossip can often revolve around questions like who is being paid what, whether bonuses are being given, or whether the business is succeeding or struggling. If small business owners aren’t open enough about these subjects with employees, they risk leaving room for the wild speculation that gossips thrive upon.
So, ask yourself: Is your office gossip spreading rumors that could be squashed with transparency? Then try opening up more to your employees. As Amy Cooper Hakim, author of Working with Difficult People, puts it, “Make sure that people know that the door is open, that if there are issues or concerns, not to feel uncomfortable addressing it with the leader in the organization.”
2. Assess the Nature of the Gossip
Believe it or not, sometimes the best thing to do with a gossip is listen to what they’re gossiping about. “It may be important information that we may not want to hear because it might be difficult for us to make a change in the company or to address a particular negative concern,” says Hakim.
For example, what if an employee is gossiping about how he heard a client say they’re unhappy with your company, or even you? Or what if the gossip revolves around complaints from your staff about your managerial style?
Now, it’s still important to stress that gossip is not acceptable behavior, and certainly not a way to voice concerns. But reassure your staff that they can come to you directly with serious issues. It won’t just potentially reduce gossip in your workplace, but can improve your business too.
3. Talk to Your Employee
Okay, you’ve done all of the above, but a gossip is still in your midst wasting time, spreading negativity, and souring morale. It’s time then to quietly set up a one-on-one with the gossiper and discuss their behavior.
It’s worth noting: If you’re wary of a one-on-one and think maybe the first step is to put out a general email or announcement reminding the entire team about gossip, don’t. You may unnecessarily send your employees into an existential crisis about whether they’re complicit.
Once you do have the gossip in front of you, it’s important to be stern, but not aggressive. Let the employee know you’re aware of the gossip, and that it’s not acceptable. But also use the opportunity to stress why it’s not acceptable, and what the consequences of gossip can do to other employees and the company as a whole.
Gossip is so habitual, the employee may not be aware. Making them aware can help link consequences with their actions, which can potentially go a long way towards breaking their bad behavior.
4. Empower the Gossip to Improve
Just because you’re pulling a gossip into your office, remember not to treat them like they’re beyond hope. All employee issues—like a worker calling in sick too often—can be potentially resolved if you help empower change.
For example, if the gossiping employee tends to badmouth the performance of co-workers, it may be because they’re upset over someone not pulling their weight. “A lot of times, gossipers gossip because they don’t directly approach the individual who’s bothering them,” says Hakim. A good manager can help a gossip overcome that, by turning that impulse to gossip into a productive talk between co-workers. “We can solve so many issues if we just directly and tactfully address an issue with the person with whom we’re upset instead of talking about it to the other people,” says Hakim.
That’s why being supportive and listening during your talk is key. It allows you to identify the source of gossip, come up with a plan to help the employee improve and extinguish their gossiping tendencies.
5. Take (Documented) Action
Despite all good intentions and efforts, you may still find yourself with an employee who continues to gossip without signs of improvement. It’s time to take action.
Opinions vary on whether gossip on its own is a fireable offense, so familiarize yourself with acceptable reasons for dismissal. If a gossip has reached the stage where firing seems justified, a few other tangible reasons will have presented themselves, including:
- Lack of productivity
- Negative effect on morale
- Bad team membership
As you would with any other difficult worker, you’ll want to have lots of documentation, including:
- Proof of meetings
- Official warnings
- Performance reviews
Then make sure you go through the steps to terminate an employee the right way so you can free your small business from the negative influence of the gossip.
Next Steps: Need more help mastering the management of employees—even ones who don’t gossip? Sign up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter and we’ll send you guides, articles, and videos to help you navigate the ins and outs of being a great manager and small business owner.
Do you have any helpful tips to share with your fellow business owners? Let us know in the comments!
I have been reading out many of your articles and I must say pretty good stuff. I will surely bookmark your site.
That’s great to hear! We’re so glad you like our articles.
One suggestion is to look at this from the employee side. Why were they showing disdain for the founders? Is it valid? You run the risk if the same problem repeating itself if the founders truly do have issues.
On the office manager talking about raises in a passive aggressive way, are raises part of career development or are they only given as a last ditch effort to retain a good employee? Many bosses only look through the ‘boss’ lens and don’t think like the employee does. Raises should be discussed openly. If there is a financial reason the company cannot issue raises, a better approach is to be honest with employees about issues the company is facing. If raises aren’t considered unless someone resigns, that is a reactive strategy and does not fix the root issue.
For those saying the gossip or phone use is impacting performance, that means discipline is warranted. Begin a progressive discipline process and be consistent with all employees and set an example for others.
Gossip is more nebulous. Plus it is hurtful. It is much more difficult to deal with than cell phone use.
Question to Leslie…. How long are the lunch hours in your organization? Our labor attorney stated to us that if we gave 15 minute breaks we would have to reduce our lunch hour to 30 minutes.
The cell phone problem is understandable. What I find strange though is that in today’s office work world, rarely do employers insist on 15 minute breaks for their full-time workers, like there used to be and which are legally mandated. People have forgotten about them, managers and owners conveniently don’t remind the employees. At one job I had (at an internet start-up, notorious for ignoring these labor laws) I suggested that employees on break put a pair of bunny ears on their head (like a headband) while on break. This shows people they are preferring to stay at their desk but be “off time”. They can go on their cell phone or surf the internet, check personal email and know it is an official break. There could be another signal for this as well instead of the bunny ears, perhaps something that can be stuck on the computer monitor to show that the employee is on a break. That way the employer knows and fellow co-workers understand this as well and they can use the phone at that time either at their desk or in another location and feel comfortable during that time doing personal business.
Thanks for sharing this suggestion Leslie!
I hope you don’t mind that I shared this in LinkedIn giving full credit, of course. Thanks so much. It’s a great article.
Not a problem thank you for sharing this article Anne!
In our small business, we kept losing new employees because 2 seasoned employees were gossiping about their disdain for the founder’s leadership. It got so bad that we had to terminate the remaining staff when those two seasoned staff resigned in a hostile manner. We ignored this for a long time and the collateral damage was the entire work force had to be terminated because they were infected like a bad virus. Please nip it in the bud when you see this happening in your business because it never gets better. Just keeps getting worse and worse.
What a learning experience. Thanks for sharing!
Great article. May I post it or a link to this article on my website? Company Facebook or Linked In pages?
Judith – Yes you can post this to your website. Be sure to credit The Hartford. Thanks for sharing!
What should we do with the office manger is the owner’s wife and we had to put up with her moodiness. All the co-workers complain about her and gossip.
In the employee manual in my small office employees are informed that they cannot use their cell phones or use the internet other than for business purposes.
good article.. but i would like to make a suggestion to Ron, start looking for a new office manager. also, when someone threatens to quit, call their bluff – since he didnt seem to get a response and as someone who has dealt with this recently, i feel inclined to give some input based off my own experience.
On a rather serious note, I would suggest talking directly to your office manager, “Hey (name) we need to discuss a few of your behaviors in the office.” then proceed to tell them how unprofessional it is to gossip about anyone (especially you) and how you find it detrimental to the overall company to allow such behaviors to continue. “While i value your contribution to this company, i’m afraid this is going to be your first official warning of behavioral misconduct.”
If you do not want to approach her directly, a passive way to go about it would be to reiterate company policy. send a bulletin with the “updated policy” and include gossiping and “defamation” make ALL employees sign the new policy and then you have the groundwork for dismissal if she does not change her behavior. During this time of updating the policy i would take the time to address all concerns that may have sprouted up since the creation of your company’s policies. I have found that this reiteration tends to be a kick in the pants for those who are maybe too comfortable and are beginning to slack in the professional sense.
I hope you get it figured out. best of luck Ron!
Thanks for your advice Tracy!
How do we control or stop personal cell phone use in the office. It is distracting and affecting work productivity.
Ron Talerico: Have you let her know that you have heard what she is saying and that it isn’t healthy for the office? Sometimes a direct approach is best, but I would only do that with someone else with you in the room so you have witness in case it gets ugly.
You can also let her know you need her, but that this is not acceptable behavior and you are hoping that there won’t be need to have this conversation again. Good luck. Also, document it….always document things…even if not in her personnel file but for your own recollection of things…
Great feedback, RaLinda!
Employees on cell phones is our biggest problem, too! We have great employees, and we understand that they have lives outside of work but the cell phone use is constant. I notice more numerous mistakes when I notice them on their cell phones more. How do you deal with this issue?
Our biggest issue is our employees spending too much time on their cell phone affecting their productivity.
Thanks for your feedback, Suresh. A lot of business owners may have the same problem!
Good article. Thank you
I am experiencing gossip in my small business. My office manager as she trains new people drops little hints of things for them to be aware of when dealing with me. Nothing direct, just little negative comments and things to watch out for. She recently made a comment to a new employee. The way to get a raise around here is to threaten to quit. I need my manager but do not know what to do. Advise welcome.
Hi Ron, thanks for sharing your story!