Workplace gossip

20 Feb 2024

McKacy Prince-Martin

“Gossip does not lend itself to simple formulaic definitions or uniformed explanations…We all ‘know’ what gossip is, but defining, identifying, and measuring it is a complex enterprise for practical investigation”

E. Foster

This writer agrees with Mr Foster’s position. However, for the purpose of adding greater clarity and context to this article, the following definition was sourced from Merry (1984): “Gossip is ‘informal, private communication, between an individual and a selected audience concerning the conduct of absent persons or events”.
The same source went on to state that gossip, which generally contains elements of evaluation or interpretation, thrives when facts are uncertain, not publicly known or easily discovered. Gossip perpetually influences institutional dynamics, mindsets, human relations, morale, and productivity.
This brings us to the question: Why do employees gossip? Or perhaps, it may be more practical to rephrase this question so that it reads: What gives gossip its power in the workplace?
Some readers may argue that these are separate questions leading to different aspects of consideration. However, this writer strongly believes that both questions would have us explore the many reasons behind workplace gossip.
The dynamics of workplace gossip differ according to the individual, the situation, the topic, the nature of work and the organisation.
In a 1956 article entitled Psychological Mechanisms in Gossip, Rebecca Stirling stated that “the functions served and motivations in gossip are varied and multiple and may be beneficent or malevolent in nature …”
Some employees use gossip for entertainment, social bonding and as a coping mechanism. Many anthropologists believe that gossip is an effective mode of informal social control. Employees may refrain from engaging in certain types of behaviour, not wanting their names to “call up”.
After all, perception is reality to the persons who hold that perception and gossip is a major contributor towards perception in any given workplace setting.

Gossip can be subdivided into two groups: Informative and Judgemental. According to Hannerz (1967), informational gossiping transmits private information about individuals and affairs.
It has been argued that gossip is beneficial and unavoidable for ambitious professionals who wish to function effectively and manoeuvre sticky situations in today’s complex work environments.
On the other hand, judgmental or malicious gossip, according to Stirling (1956), when directed towards an in-group member, is disruptive to group harmony. The same source went on to say that many preliterate societies recognised gossip as a disruption, frowned upon its use and imposed social sanctions to control it.
Specific reference was made to the West African Ashanti Tribe and Seminole Indians, who considered tale-bearing and “bad talking” as serious breaches in acceptable norms and publicly punished individuals engaged in such instances.
There is no denying that gossip can serve to create alternative facts, illusions, and wreck relationships.

Other negative effects of gossip include:

A loss of productivity: According to Dunbar (2004), gossip accounts for approximately 65 per cent of employees’ speaking time. This implies that a large amount of productive time is spent in conversations on social topics, including speaking about colleagues.

Damage to personal reputation: Targets of gossip may be hurt at how their co-workers perceive their affairs by manipulation of information. This can open the door to litigation, as the communication may be slanderous or libellous depending on its form.

Workplace Conflict: Gossip may fuel interpersonal tensions that could escalate into significant confrontations and workflow disruptions. Other employees may feel the need to choose sides in these conflicts, further eroding morale. Any rational thinking employee, after reading this article, would deduce that gossip is dangerous.
Perhaps, it may be funny when someone else is the target, but every gossiping perpetrator knows that when they leave the room, it’s possible that they would then become the subject for conversation. Additionally, it’s naive to believe that gossip is a sustainable bonding tool or even an effective coping mechanism.

Ultimately, in response to the negative effects of gossip, management could implement any combination of policies, whistleblowing mechanisms, training/mentoring initiatives or sanctions, all strategically designed to deter employees from engaging in gossip.
However, it should be noted that all these responses would prove futile if employees do not engage in comprehensive and honest self-analysis, self-regulation, and positive change.
People are the stewards, guardians, and the perpetrators of gossip – if people are to stop gossiping, then it stands to reason that gossip will die.

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