Surveys of academics (for example, McKay et al., 2008) often identify gossip as a major factor in workplace problems, one that can affect job satisfaction and staff retention, as well as contributing to bullying. What can you do to stop loose talk from creating poisonous relationships in the faculty lounge?
The impact of gossip.
Even seemingly mundane forms of gossip—staffroom chit-chat about other employees’ appearance, relationship status, financial problems or personal characteristics—can create a painful situation for the target. When this form of gossip creates divisions or is deliberately used to inflict harm, it can become bullying. This can have consequences for anyone involved as well as for the bullied individual. Most universities now have anti-bullying, anti-harassment and Equalities policies, so idle talk can at times be a career-ending proposition.
There are factors in university workplaces that create a breeding ground for gossip. Overwork, lack of role clarity and low job autonomy have been identified as workplace characteristics that encourage bullying (Baillien et al., 2009), and along with the uncertainty that can be introduced by reorganisations and cuts, these can lead to gossip as a maladaptive strategy for dealing with stress, or as a vindictive attempt at one-upmanship.
Management role in prevention.
Staff with management roles cannot dodge their responsibility to put in place proactive policies and strategies. They are in charge of the overall workplace environment, and anything that threatens good order or employee satisfaction and effectiveness should therefore be on the agenda. It is easier to prevent gossip than it is to respond when it has already occurred.
Managers have a key role in addressing the power disparities that are all too often involved in workplace gossip. For perpetrators, gossip can serve a role of putting the victim “in their place,” demeaning them in the eyes of others and thereby raising the perpetrator’s status. Its very nature seeks to involve others—those to whom it is repeated and those who overhear it—in this action, which is also a reminder to these individuals that they could be the next target.
By addressing the issue head-on through preventative policies and practices, such as in-service training that clearly proscribes gossip and putting known perpetrators on notice, managers can defuse attempted power-plays.
Coworkers: Responsibilities and risks.
Listeners and bystanders also have responsibilities, as without them gossip has no power. However, they can be afraid to risk confronting those who spread rumours. Perhaps the most powerful stance is one of explicitly shutting down such conversations by saying things like, “I don't think it’s nice to talk about people behind their backs,” without directly addressing the topic or shaming the person.
Research indicates that gossip has a role in social bonding, but it is a largely negative way of achieving this goal. Staff concerned about malicious gossip can sometimes turn the situation around without personal risk by deliberately spreading positive “gossip” or putting forward alternative means of social bonding, such as a cooperative drive to raise funds for charity or carry out a project within the department.
Baillien, E., Neyens, I., De Witte, H., & De Cuyper, N. (2009) “A qualitative study on the development of workplace bullying: Towards a three-way model,” Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 19(1): pp. 1-16.
McKay, R., Arnold, D.H., Fratzl, J. and Thomas, R. (2008) “Workplace bullying in academia: A Canadian study,” Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 20(2): pp. 77-100.