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Idle Chitchat or Something Worse?

The headline was "Four Women Fired for Gossiping."

The town employees of Hooksett, New Hampshire, were dismissed, in part, "for gossiping and discussing rumors of an improper relationship between the town administrator and another employee that Hooksett residents now agree were not true," according to an ABC News report.

"Gossip, whispering and an unfriendly environment are causing poor morale and interfering with the efficient performance of town business," the Town Council concluded.

The firings led to at least two settlements for employees who sued the town. But the ordeal could have all been avoided. The lesson? Gossip in the workplace is a serious problem that can have grave consequences for local governments and municipal officials. It's not a matter of freedom of speech. It's a matter of whether an employee is undermining and disrupting a place of employment.

But everyone gossips a little, right? And what if the chatter is of a positive nature — a coworker is expecting a child, engaged to be married, won an award or will be taking on an exciting new project?

"That kind of talk is good for a team," said Nancy Grunnet, regional vice president for First Sun EAP, whose expertise includes manager/supervisor skill building, team building, stress and morale.

"The focus is on connection, on a shared positive experience. It's about putting others up, not vying for position by putting them down."

In short, the subject matter of workplace discourse is key.

"Sometimes people think that to fit in, they must edge others out," Grunnet said. "They think being top dog or leader of the pack means talking about others or putting others down so that you then appear superior."

She said this kind of gossip can actually backfire on the gossiper.

"Most people see through that, and in the end, they walk away — not with positive impressions of the person gossiping but rather with images of caution tape in their mind and that, 'I had better protect myself.'"

Grunnet also highlighted a common hesitation managers have about addressing the office social climate.

"Managers become frustrated with the subject of gossip because they are unsure of when to step in or how to step in," she said.

"They think the social realm is not really their domain."

However, Grunnet said, if gossip has risen to the level of disrupting the workplace and the business of work, managers must address the problem.

Effects of negative gossip include

  • Hurt feelings
  • Disrupted work
  • Work mistakes or unsafe choices
  • Staff turnover

    Managers should intervene under various circumstances, including

  • If at any time any individual's performance or team performance is suffering
  • If the gossip has disrupted the workplace and the business of work
  • If employee motivation and morale is being negatively affected

Grunnet will present a session on workplace gossip during the SC Municipal Human Resources Association's Annual Meeting November 14 – 16 on Hilton Head Island.