Almost every office has a gossip. According to a BetterBuys survey, over 50 percent 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 percent 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 employees who gossip too much.
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 office, 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: 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—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.