How to deal with negative office gossip

How to identify and eradicate toxic workplace vibes

How to deal with negative office gossip

To quote the late, great, George Harrison: “Gossip is the Devil’s radio.” Even so, that doesn’t stop it being a staple part of everyday life. As a society, we love to talk. In fact, research from Captivate found that the average person spends 40 minutes per day gossiping. We revel in hearing secrets and telling tales to friends – and, for the most part, it’s all just harmless fun. However, when we start bringing gossip into the workplace the ramifications can be toxic. Negative office gossip can cross the line into harassment and bullying – leading to high turnover rates and poor team morale. Here, HRD will explore some ways you can confront and dispel toxic office gossip in your organisation, before it goes too far.

Dust off your office policy book

Negative gossip presents itself in many different ways. Often, it’s so underhanded that it’s near impossible to detect - however, the repercussion can easily be seen in a morale and productivity nosedive. Once someone brings the issue to your attention it’s important to act fast. Start your internal investigation by looking into your organisational policy. If the gossip is of a disparaging nature, it could constitute bullying – which is, in some cases, cause for termination. However, if it’s just general griping, then the issue could stem from recent leadership mishaps.

Read more: Conflict resolution in the workplace at its finest

Pinpoint the underlying cause

Once you’ve uncovered the problem, it’s time to don your deerstalker and pipe, and discover the root cause. Rather than gossip about their peers, employees normally target their anger towards seniority. Research found that the majority of gossip is directed towards the management team (44%), followed by the CEO (34%), then clients (31%), and, worryingly, their HR department (20%).

What’s sparked this sudden miasma of negativity? Has there been some controversial hiring or firings? Has the pandemic upended bonus structures? Has HR become even more stringent in their monitoring practices? Once you start digging a little deeper, the real reason for the bad vibes will become clear.

Try a coaching approach

It’s tempting to call out the gossiper and confront them publicly – but that really won’t resolve the issue. Instead, pull the person aside and ask them if there’s anything they’d like to discuss with you. Tell them that you’re concerned there’s been a negative atmosphere in the office lately – and ask them their thoughts on the cause.

Read more: Goldman Sachs’ gossip uncovered

“I would recommend managers acknowledge the negative aspect of gossip – either as an observer or as a listener,” Eric Termuende, world renowned keynote speaker and acclaimed author, told HRD. “This presents an opportunity for us to have an important conversation before any toxicity spirals into a dangerous situation. If that conversation starts veering off in the wrong direction, politely suggest that we switch gears and try being a little bit more constructive. When it comes to confronting office gossip, there’s a rude way to do it and there’s a polite way. As a leader, it’s your job to stay professional whilst still tackling the issue head on.”

Up your communication

Negative office gossip is often caused by stress, anger, and frustration – rather than a desire to simply ‘be difficult’. As such, it’s important to invest more time and effort into ramping up your communication strategy. The pandemic has led to remote working and hybrid models – but it’s also sparked something of a communication lull. Employees want to know what’s happening within the organisation, they need to know that leadership is being transparent – so instead of actively curatively, be preventative in your measures. Have an open-door policy, hold regular town halls and weekly team calls to gauge the general feeling in the company.

Whatever the nature or cause of the gossip, it’s important to address the problem and not brush it under the rug. What begins as a small murmuring of discontent can quickly spiral into an all out revolt. As HR leaders, it’s incumbent on you to get to the bottom of the issue, to keep spirits high, and foster an environment of open and continuous communication.

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