How to Handle Gossip

Gossip -- most managers become the object of it, hate it, yet handle gossip by basically ignoring it.

The best way I found to address gossip is head on.  Almost without exception.

There are at least two reasons for this.

  1. Silence gives those on the inside of the rumours a point of leverage that they can (and very well may) use against you.  When they can threaten to reveal the truth behind the gossip -- and often times there is a kernal of truth there -- it gives them power over you.  By addressing gossip head on, you remove or eliminate this point of leverage.
  2. Gossip loves a vaccuum.  In the absence of being addressed by management, gossip tends to snowball, becoming more and more incredible with each retelling.  It is a sort of "telephone game" for adults.  By addressing gossip, you place some boundaries around the subject which normally will limit the insanely stupid levels that rumours will sometimes escalate to.

Here are a couple of cases in point. 

  • At one of my former employers, we had recurring rumours running through the workforce every year that there would be no wage increases.  The stories were based, as far as I could tell, on a single instance that had occurred more than ten years before.  But people have long memories, and the employees were confessing their own fears through the gossip surrounding this subject.  The problem was, I had a tough time addressing the rumours early on because they inevitably began before management even started considering the question of wage increases.

So here is how I addressed this -- during an all employee meeting (where I always asked the employees to identify the rumours -- which they rarely did -- and I would address them) I took the employees through the factors management would consider when thinking about wage increases.  Things like our business performance, actions of other employers in the area, and the likely positions of the other divisions of the company (that also needed to agree with my management team's opinion).  While I couldn't say definitively what the increase would be, I could normally make it clear to the employees that there was a process in place to work through this, and management fiat would not rule the day when it came time to make the final decision.

While I felt this helped quite a bit, it never completely stamped out the gossip.  The only thing that silenced it was the actual announcement of the increase.  And the next year, the same set of stories would again raise their ugly heads. 

  • In my second example, I was the direct subject of the gossip.  In this case, the story when it reached my ears was completely outrageous -- that for every 100 employees my business unit laid off, the company would provide me a new car!  And this rumour had it's origins in my salaried support staff, rather than in the shop where I would have expected it to come from.

The problem was, I could kind of see how this rumour might have gotten started.  First, I had just recently taken delivery of a new flashy car -- one I'd ordered almost a year earlier.  And we were going through a larger than usual seasonal layoff due to some disappointing sales numbers.  Even though I thought the story was outrageous and completely unbelievable, I could sort of see how employees might connect the two things.

In our next regular review meeting, I took a few minutes to repeat the rumour to the group (which included most of our salaried staff), and explained how the car had been ordered a year ago, and was not a reward for laying off employees.  I'm sure some of the folks in the room didn't believe me, but by then I think I had a pretty good track record established of always telling the truth when in front of people.

That move squelched the rumour and, in fact, delivered the source of the story to me as well.  One employee, disgusted by the utter stupidity of the tale, informed me who had started the whopper.  I didn't use that information against the employee in any way, but I do admit I was predisposed afterward to suspect that individual when wild rumours circulated.

So, while not a perfect solution, hitting those rumours head on definitely helped me manage them.  I must say, however, that to be believed the manager has to be unerringly truthful with their employees, and also very forthcoming when they know something,  suspect something might happen, or when they really don't know.  One error here will take many, many accurate revelations to be offset.

Of course, there are some circumstances where you simply can't meet the rumour head on -- when it involves confidential information, when doing so might injure an employee, or when you'd be forced to speculate about someone else's motives.  In those circumstances, a simple "I don't know" or "I can't say" may be the best you can do. 10.1


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Corporate Thriller novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZE, and DELIVERABLES.  These are all based on extensions of my basic experiences in the world of corporate management.