Gossip and Offfice Etiquette

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctor about gossip: I am in a lead position, and would like to know if this should be addressed more seriously or if we are supposed to sweep our frustration under the rug,

I have two coworkers that whisper, email and laugh out loud to each others replies, and spend several minutes/hrs. each day conversing about non work related subjects. They have been warned by management it is a problem and were told to go somewhere else if they need to talk about someone or something, so now we know when they go to the vending machine that means they’re going to talk about someone.

I’m mostly concerned now as we have a new employee, and when they email each other the snickering gets out of control. I am in a lead position, and would like to know if this should be addressed more seriously or if we are supposed to sweep our frustration under the rug, deal with it and be professional…not let our feelings get in the way. Many of the conversations they have may not be work related, however, they do have history of being very gossipy and talking negatively of coworkers, bosses, etc. I would like to know how it should be appropriately addressed.

Signed, Lead or Sweep

Dear Lead or Sweep:

In your position as lead, are you responsible to see that management’s wishes are carried out? Is not that suggested by your question? You know management has warned the two individuals “to go somewhere” other than their work stations when they want “to converse about non-work related subjects”.

The two are doing that; however, you appear to think this isn’t abiding by the spirit of the warning because you assume their snickering seems out of control and they have in your opinion a history of negative gossip. What should you do: ignore it or confront them?

Probably first you need to think through the nature of the tasks to which your work group is assigned. Is the work meaningful? Is your group performing satisfactorily? Could its productivity be of a higher quality and quantity? Would pushing for that dampen the motivation of your work group? These questions are at the core of what is best for them and your company. This is to suggest that work, especially some work, is boring and stressful. Might gossip help cope with that and pass the day? How much is helpful and how much is too much? Is it really a problem for a couple of co-workers to “whisper, email and laugh out loud to each others replies, and spend several minutes/hrs. each day conversing about non work related subjects”? Or should you be pleased at least two workers seem to hit it off and intersperse chit chat with their assignments? It is when we sense something is not right that we learn how to lead.

First, you learn by thinking through the nature and cause of what doesn’t seem right, and second, you learn by determining whether in this case you have a serious problem or simply an annoyance. Such matters as how to react to gossiping workers raise questions in your mind about what is your role and what is the goal of your work group.Once you have thought through what is the nature of the jobs for which your work group is hired, it is then that you can better know what you, as lead, should do. Management was involved and made the warning; therefore, it is up to you as lead to keep them informed and to come to an understanding about what you are expected to do.

You are now ready to act with these matters thought through and your role as lead clarified. Acting as lead probably entails such issues as if, when, and where to talk about talk.”Ownership of rules” results when a work group is engaged in spelling out the dos and don’ts of how to talk with one another about their jobs; making clear who does what when and what interaction is needed. I like to see assignment posted with time lines. A work group that meets in skull sessions (not just one session) to talk about task-related talk is on the road to becoming a team. Talk about talk also establishes how complaints about tasks and non-work talk are best handled. You may think this discussion is more complex than simply telling you as lead to tell the two coworkers while on clock to cut the non-work talk non matter where except for breaks and lunch time. If so you are correct. It is more complex.

Naming you as lead has put you in the role of authority as rule maker/enforcer or of you as coach generating compliance by engaging those you lead. These roles are not exclusive and what you do hinges on the situation and your organizational policy and culture. Taking all this in may be too much to expect, but if you act with courage and goodwill, I predict you will find support from your work group. Do these thought make sense? If not, do they prompt you to find a more creative answer to your question? I hope you find the answer to your question that extends beyond this one frustrating situation; that is learning how to lead.

There is no one sure-fire fix to the problem of gossip. One HR Manager, Dan Kearney, who occasionally serves as a guest respondent for us, lists the following rules he believes are important to organizational life: “If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway!!!!

1. Never say anything negative about anybody

2. Always be positive

3. Leave your problems at home

4. When in doubt, ask your boss

5. Never assume ANYTHING

6. Find out who’s related to whom and who’s politically connected to whom

7. Avoid the ass kissers like the plague (I’m sure you can think of a more politically correct term than I provided, I just can’t think of one now). This food for though is more than you asked for. So take only what you find feeds your need to answer this question. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and by that I mean doing what it takes to make your work group have a sense of achievement.

William Gorden