The Terribly Destructive Impact of Workplace Gossip

Jun 15, 2012

Let’s start with a riddle:

Who am I?

I break hearts and ruin lives. I’m cunning and malicious and get stronger with age. The more I’m quoted, the more I’m believed. Once I damage a reputation, it’s never the same. I make headlines and headaches. I spawn suspicion and grow grief. I maim marriages and kill careers. Even my name hisssses.

Who am I?

The answer: GOSSIP.

I personally have seen that one little word do all of the above and much much more. In fact, when you peel away the lawyers of an employment dispute, gossip is often right at the very heart of it. Left unchecked, it can destroy an entire organization.

Think I’m exaggerating? A new study by the Georgia Institute of Technology examines the effects of gossip in the modern workplace. It ain’t pretty.

Did gossip bring Enron down?

The study evaluated 517,431 emails sent by Enron employees prior to its collapse. Defining gossip as “the absence of a third party from the conversation,” researchers set out to discover its role in workplace dynamics.

The average employee sends and receives 112 emails each and every work day. About 1 in 7 of those emails could be considered gossip, according to the study.

The researchers reached the following conclusions about all that gossipishness:

  • Gossip has four main purposes: information, entertainment, intimacy and influence.
  • Gossip is “all-pervasive” and is common at every level of an organization.
  • Low-level employees play a lead role in circulating gossip throughout the entire hierarchy.
  • Directors and VPs are the most likely to spread gossip both up and down the chain.
  • In-house lawyers (ouch) are the next most likely to spread gossip downward.
  • The sent email folders of some CEOs contained 100 percent gossipy emails.
  • Gossip is as frequent in personal communications as it is in formal ones.
  • Emails targeting a smaller audience are more likely to contain gossip.
  • Some employees are constant “gossip sources,” while others are merely “silent readers.”
  • Gossip is 2.7 times more likely to be negative than positive.

What it all means

The study stopped short of concluding that gossip is what killed Enron. But, based on the above findings, it certainly didn’t help.

In my 20 plus years of analyzing employment disputes, it’s 187 percent clear to me that a culture mired in gossip rather than direct, collaborative communication is far more likely to find itself in court — perhaps ultimately bankruptcy court.

If you’d prefer not to end up like Enron, please please please educate your managers and employees about,

  1. The destructive effects of gossip; and,
  2. How to engage in collaborative communication that is open, honest and respectful.

Organizations that do that will win. Those that don’t, won’t.

This was originally published on Manpower Group’s Employment Blawg.

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