www.humancapitalonline.

com I 18 I May 2013
I
BY SWATI BHASIN
Workplace gossiping is the biggest testimony of the 'love-hate'
relationship of an employee with employer. Regardless of the
size and brand value of the organization, every employer likes
to dwell upon the utopian thought of making the workplace
rumour-free!
Rumours galore...
to gossiping
no more !!!
COVER STORY
I

W
hat goes around comes
around!' is true not only of
Karma, but also about
workplace gossips. We have
often heard and ignored the cliché, whoever
gossips with you, will gossip about you! Many
a time, the corporate world too commits the
blunder of treating workplace rumors as a
trivial issue or tries to sweep such instances
under the carpet. However, in the
organizational context, there is no denying
the fact that loss of reverence towards the
organization in the eyes of employees or a
rift created among colleagues due to
miscommunication are some of the serious
implications of gossiping.
As much as we may like to look down
upon the gossiping behavior prevalent among
employees, an interesting irony that can be
attached here is how gossiping finds an
important place in the evolutionary context,
as stated by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary
biologist. According to him, not only
gossiping has been found to foster stronger
social bonds throughout history, but he has
also stressed upon how 65 per cent of
conversations mostly comprise of social
topics. Since gossiping comes naturally to
humans, it becomes all the more necessary
for the corporate world to analyze the
gossiping behavior among the workforce in
order to leverage the positives and minimize
the negatives.
Why it happens?
Manav*, a journalist, was recently fired from
May 2013 I 19 www.humancapitalonline.com I
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COVER STORY
a fashion magazine. The case in question is
quite thought provoking from an HR
viewpoint. Manav was disturbed from a very
long time with the erratic working hours that
even ate up most of his weekends and
holidays. Also, his long- term aspirations did
not align with that of the organization as he
was more interested in setting up his own
business, and he often discussed his concerns
with his colleague, Dharamesh*. Although, he
didn't have a choice but to continue in his
current job; yet due to stress and illness, he
was once forced to take a week's leave, and
his boss was not too happy with it. When he
came back, the Editor fired him because she
came to know that he was not interested to
work here and had other 'business plans 'of
his own. She even accused him of
incompetence. Later, Manav realized that it
was Dharmesh who had spilled the beans just
to earn a few extra brownie points from the
boss. Manav regretted divulging such
information to a colleague, and learnt a
lifetime lesson about the dire consequence
of gossiping. From an HR perspective, the
reaction of all three people involved, Manav,
Dharamesh and the Editor, is undoubtedly
questionable and each of them could have
handled the situation more professionally.
Curiosity gets piqued, as to why do such
instances happen bringing difficult times
upon the employers and the employees, and
how the extreme reactions and behaviors can
be controlled. Only a deep insight into the
matter can help one understand the situation
better.
www.humancapitalonline.com I 20 I May 2013
A study published in the
Journal of Applied Psychology,
by a team of researchers from
Netherlands, claims that gossip
makes up for 90 per cent of the
workplace conversations,
however, not all gossip can be
branded as negative. In the
author's words, "By gossiping,
one can warn group members
against others who violate group
norms, and it is possible that this
explicit motive is a reason to
instigate gossip." The study
successfully underlines the
prevalence and underlying
psychology of gossiping.
As Ratish Jha, SVP & Head-
HR, Raychem RPG, also insists,
"Spreading of rumors in an
organization highlights the
failure of the management to
connect with the workforce. The
employees are not to be entirely
blamed for indulging in such
behaviors." Prasad Kurian, a leader
in a leading FMCG brand, with a
deep expertise in Development &
Talent Management, concedes to
Jha's opinion and further explains,
"Rumors are like darkness that exist
in the absence of light viz a viz
credible information and mutual
trust in this case, and this
encourages a culture where rumors
galore! Employees have the need to
know about things that can impact
them, especially their jobs and
careers. If this information is not
shared in a timely manner
through formal channels, it
can encourage a culture
of rumors."
Several situations
prepare the
breeding ground
for workplace
gossip, and
Jha stresses on it by
saying, "A critical situation best
nurtures the rumors". Albeit, some
may think only an alleged romantic
affair between colleagues can trigger
the imagination of employees,
however, HR's nightmare may begin
whenever there is a union
settlement, or salary restrictions are
being imposed during performance
cycles, or there is a down-sizing
exercise, or if the organization is in
a phase of a major transformation
such as restructuring or mergers and
acquisitions, without keeping
employees in the loop, as Pradipta
Panda, Group President HR, Adani
Group, sheds light on the
common instances that
arouse the gossiping
behavior among
employees. He
further confesses
that he comes
across such
situations every
once in a while.
Shalaka Gadekar, Group
Head - Human Resources,
Financial Technologies further
elucidates the woes of HR
pertaining to the gossip culture,
"Whether employees talk about
the relations between senior
management, supposed
resignations, or illicit
relationships which could be
mere speculation, what
becomes more damaging is the
tendency of employees to
discuss the employer on social
networking sites in an
unfavorable light. With the
advent of the Internet, gossip
can now be widespread on an
instant basis."
All in all, anything ranging
from a dysfunctional coffee
vending machine to a pay
cheque that bounced, to
personal habits and choice of a
leader, can very well become the
fodder for workplace gossip.
However, it is important to identify
the reason to understand the gravity
of the situation and plan further
course of action.
A mature way of handling
In 2011, Ray Dalio, the Founder of
the American investment
management firm, Bridgewater
Associates, issued a diktat in his
organization wherein gossiping was
banned. According to the diktat, the
staff, prohibited from talking behind
the back of leaders and
administrators, would be fired if
found indulging into gossips and
rumors more than twice. Arguably,
even such an extreme step may fail
to resolve the issue at the ground
level.
Jha advocates a very contradictory
approach to handle gossiping and
rumors at workplaces. He believes
that the key solution lies in a liberal
leadership that assures freedom to
the employees. An assurance is
necessary that the organization is all
ears to soothe the employee's
grievances. In fact, in a field report
on gossip, published in the Journal
of Contemporary Ethnography, lead
author Timothy Hallett, a sociologist
at Indiana University has asserted
COVER STORY
I
®
In a research carried out by British Market
Research Bureau Limited, it was revealed that
men are more likely to gossip than women.
The survey highlights that 55 per cent of men
said they gossiped
at work, compared
to 46 per cent of
women whose top
topics were family
feuds.
®
Another research by Social Issues Research
Centre also underlines the point where 33 per
cent of men have been found to be indulging
in gossip daily or almost every day - compared
to 26 per cent of women.
GOSSIPING IS NOT A
'WOMEN' THING
GOSSIPING IS NOT A
'WOMEN' THING
www.humancapitalonline.com I 22 I May 2013
how gossiping (read discussing
workplace woes) in formal meetings
is done in a much more subtle way
as compared to when people vent
out in informal meetings.
On the other hand, Gadekar
addresses the negative side of
gossiping as a form of workplace
violence and talks about its
implication on the organization,
"Whether the rumor mill is
producing stories about a
single employee or the
entire company, gossip in
the office can cause
speculation, panic and a
slide in productivity and
morale. Gossip at work may
impact the overall employee
performance, and lead to a
workforce that doesn't trust
the management, which
quickly causes alienation
and employee
disengagement." She
suggests that an employer
should decide to take
stringent action against the
defaulters, if the gossip is:
G
Disrupting the
workplace and the business
of work
G
Hurting employees'
feelings
G
Damaging interpersonal
relationships
G
Injuring employee
motivation and morale
Communication is the
key to eradicate rumours, is
a popular opinion. However,
experts help us analyse the
proper communication
channels in detail. Gadekar
opines that the hierarchies
in the organizations can be
leveraged in this regard as
the entire hierarchical chain
in the organizational
hierarchy is not only built to
manage the business but is
also built to manage the
communication required to
function efficiently. "Every
chain in the hierarchy must
get easy access to the
hierarchy just above it and
communication should flow
freely between all," she says.
While on the other hand, Kurian
lays emphasis on the 'sight' and
'insight' approach to deal with
rumors. "The best way to deal with
rumors is to find out the need the
rumors are fulfilling for the
employees and address those needs
with more positive alternatives. By
'sight', I mean providing the relevant
information in a timely manner
through legitimate channels so that
the employees can
figure out what is happening
without having to depend on
rumor," he elaborates and adds, "By
'insight', I mean sensitizing the
employees on the adverse impact
rumors have on themselves, fellow
employees and the organization."
Also, organizations have to further
understand that mostly the
disengaged employees tend to
involve themselves in such activities
of rumor mongering. So Panda
suggests that it is best to
engage these employees
and create reward
mechanisms that applaud
the right kind of
behaviors. "The wrong-
doers are never too large
in number, as per my
experience. Leaders
should try and isolate the
defaulters and later
confront them directly.
The motive behind
spreading the rumors
should be understood and
then the course of action
should be decided," says
Panda.
Additionally, according
to Panda it is also
necessary to understand
the organizational
dynamics in order to
discourage such behaviors
in the long run. Training
the employees can also be
a way out for the HR
organizations to engage
the employees in more
positive conversations.
Conclusively, employers
have to understand that
although taking strict
action might be necessary
in some cases, whether it
is a warning note or a legal
action, however, a
stringent action may
further break the trust of
the employees which can
rather be counter-
productive. So a balanced
approach becomes
quintessential.
Several times, it is
also in the interest of the
organization to ignore a
COVER STORY
I
Leaders share their views on handling workplace
gossips:
The balanced approach: Kurian strongly believes that
employees solely cannot be held responsible for
spreading the gossip culture in an organization. And
Gadekar concedes to the opinion that smoke cannot
be there without fire. So, organizations should
investigate office rumors, as discreetly as possible.
Social media menace: In 2011, tweeple bashed
McDonald's for discrimination against Afro-American
customers when a false photo accidentally got
uploaded.
The social networking sites have indeed become a
menace, and the troubles are no lesser for the
organization as far as managing social media behavior
among the employees is concerned. However, Jha
says that tracking the employees on social media is
an impractical thought and so is telling the IT teams
to block certain sites. Gadekar suggests a middle
way out, "A separate unambiguous instant messaging
and blogging policy can be introduced by the
organizations that prohibits employees from making
statements about the organization, co-workers, and
external customers, competitors, agents, or partners
that could be considered harassing, or not appropriate
in any way."
PEARLS OF WISDOM PEARLS OF WISDOM
www.humancapitalonline.com I 24 I May 2013
particular situation
where a rumor is
harmless for the
organization. For
instance, Jha gives an
example of an
interviewee who might
have had a bad
experience during the
interview and who
might spread the word,
owing to a genuine
experience. However, an
interviewee might even
do that only owing to a
simple reason of being
vindictive and not being
selected for a particular
job. "It is better to have
a policy statement on
distinguishing between
harmless and harmful
gossips," suggests
Gadekar.
Call for responsible
leadership
The captain of the ship
weathers the storm. He
has the power to sail
through challenges or
drown the ship.
Similarly, whether or not
an instance of
employees gossiping
becomes a bigger
trouble for the organization, largely
depends on the acumen of leaders.
Albeit, it might be a chance
occurrence, but Panda says that
there might be instances when
leaders themselves get involved in
the office gossip.
The story of Lokesh*, a software
engineer with an IT giant who leads
a team of five people, is pertinent
here. He lost his chance of getting
promoted as an Assistant Manager
when HR and his new manager
doubted his involvement in
instigating his team members
against the manager. However, his
justification has been that he was
only trying to represent the concerns
of his team, while they were trying
to adjust with a change in
leadership.
Kurian shares his perspective in
this regard, "We should remember
that the business
leaders are also human beings and
that often adverse impact of the
changes on the leaders are more as
compared to that on their teams. This
highlights the need for coaching the
leaders and also creating
communication channels and
forums. For the leader, establishing
a vulnerable connection with the
employees, without losing positivity
and the ability to lead the team
through the change is the magic
factor!" He further emphasizes why
leaders should let employees express
their concerns and demonstrate the
willingness to discuss those concerns
in an open and constructive manner.
Walking the talk works best in
favor of leadership teams as far as
diluting rumors are concerned. When
employees look up to leaders as role
models, they tend to see their
forerunner in a positive
light.
Moreover, the task of
eliminating rumors in
organizations cannot be
solely trusted upon the
leaders. HR has to be
equally proactive. "HR
should not consider
spreading of rumors to be
a management issue.
Sometimes, the
management does not
prefer handling the issues
directly and that creates the
problem. Leaders, in
collaboration with HR have
to try passionately to
maintain a congenial work
environment where
employee trust is
maintained," asserts Panda.
A sea-saw of perceptions
While in one survey
conducted by Harris
Interactive, gossiping is rated
as the top most pet peeve in
a job by 60 per cent of the
respondents; another survey
by Randstad revealed that the
respondents considered poor
time management skills in a
colleague (43 per cent) to be
a bigger pet peeve than
gossiping ( 36 per cent). So,
to indulge or not to indulge
in gossiping is looked at with varied
perspectives.
Albeit, addressing the menace of
gossiping is still considered to be an
informal issue by many in the HR
fraternity, however, Jha suggests that
through formal programs that
address the fundamentals of
employer branding, democratizing
workplaces and making the
organizational culture more
transparent, rumors can be nipped
in the bud.
All in all, as Gadekar rightly
concludes, "Using solid
communication channels, providing
training, and implementing
workplace policies may help turn
the office grapevine into a positive
tool for the organization." HC
COVER STORY
I
Connecting for gossiping definitely has some benefits:
Makes you productive: A paper published in the Journal
of Applied Psychology reveals that workplace gossip
helps in increasing productivity, as it helps people in
gathering and validating information, and enjoying
themselves with others, according to Bianca Beersma,
the co-author of the study.
Helps in bonding and releasing tension: In a study
published in the journal Personal Relationships, Jennifer
Bosson, the author asserts that sharing negative gossip
fosters bonding between two people and develops an
understanding between them as they learn each others'
grievances. Similar positive social effects have been
highlighted in another paper in the Journal Personality
and Social Psychology.
THE BRIGHTER SIDE! THE BRIGHTER SIDE!
(* Names have been changed on request)