Analyze This

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week

Inveighing against gossip in a recent press release, Sam Chapman, CEO of Empower Public Relations in Chicago, says he has made his 15-person firm a “gossip-free zone.” (His employees have pledged not to gripe or dish in whispers.) Just how harmful is workplace gossip? And can it really be banished?

It’s tough to eradicate a ubiquitous human activity, and I’m not convinced that it’s entirely desirable. Most gossip is fueled by our curiosity about how others live, along with the need to share those observations. (O.K., add a touch of envy, competitiveness, or schadenfreude at times.)

Granted, in its worst form office gossip can be malicious, even career-ending. The unhappy, self-destructive person specializing in this kind of malice tends to spread such rumors to curry favor with others–or to inflict pain. Such a gossiper must be reported to the boss and stopped or fired–before too much damage is inflicted on individuals or the organization’s culture. 

At the other end of the spectrum, though, is relatively benign gossip, which tends to be about co-workers who stand out in some way or authority figures whose lives seem mysterious to the staff. Such gossip (generally true, in my experience), serves to spread news speedily, test our perceptions about people with whom we have scant contact, and even deepen informal bonds at work. 

It may seem paradoxical, but for managers, listening to gossip and openly addressing any misperceptions can go a long way toward improving communication and morale. When it’s humming, the grapevine can yield valuable insights into what employees are concerned about.