Gossip can have a harmful impact on workplace culture but investigating rumours the wrong way can be equally damaging.
Have you heard about the Pope?
In a recent Sunday Angelus, Pope Francis strayed from prepared remarks to tell his congregation that gossip is a “plague worse than COVID.”
While the Pope obviously isn’t a fan of gossip, across the board almost everyone is prone to engaging with it.
A 2019 US study tried to nail down who gossips the most. Is it men or women? Is there a socioeconomic difference? They found gossiping is actually ubiquitous and that participants spent, on average, almost an hour a day gossiping.
We might not want to admit it, but most humans are gossips by nature. HRM previously looked into research that found harmless gossip is a standard, almost healthy, way of communicating.
When gossip is just toothless nattering about daily goings-on it can provide a benefit to the workplace. As Alex Hattingh, chief people officer at Employment Hero says, “in an office environment, banter and social chit-chat are an important part of building connection and professional relationships”.
However, she says when gossip becomes harmful it can damage the morale of your team and your company culture.
Though gossip can be a bonding experience for some, it can also be ostracising and, in the worst cases, it can damage reputations. But investigating rumours is a risky task. Firstly, employers can add fuel to the fire by unintentionally confirming misinformation through the act of investigating. Secondly, employees may try to deflect blame from themselves by falsely accusing other employees.
Recently one employer found this out the hard way.
How to investigate rumours: the wrong way
Early this month the FWC heard an unfair dismissal case which has all the makings of a salacious story – a hot pink laptop, a two-day Christmas party and a secret ballot.
A Sydney accounting firm landed itself in hot water when it demanded the resignation of one of its accountants after alleging she was spreading false rumours about the firm’s director.
In October 2019, the director provided a hot pink laptop to a new employee and a few months later hosted a two-day work Christmas party at an Airbnb. According to the director, the accountant used the event to spread a rumour that he, the director, was having an affair with the new employee.
Understandably concerned by the rumours, the director called the accountant and her supervisor into a meeting. The accountant denied ever spreading the rumours, but the director claimed he had witnesses. When asked who the witnesses were, the director refused to reveal their identities.
The accountant then asked to meet with all employees so she could address the alleged “witnesses” face-to-face. After summoning all 15 staff members, the director asked them to raise their hands if they had heard the accountant spread the rumours. No one did. The accountant’s supervisor then suggested a secret ballot.
When the results were collected only two employees claimed the accountant had spread the rumours. Another employee said they had heard the rumours, but not from the accountant, and the rest denied knowing anything.
After the vote, the accountant alleged the director produced two pre-written resignation letters and demanded she sign them. The director denied this claim, saying he had no intention of terminating the accountant but that she chose to resign rather than admit she had spread the rumours.
FWC commissioner Ian Cambridge rejected the director’s claims and ruled in favour of the accountant. In his consideration, Cambridge said the firm had created a workplace environment that provided “significant potential for innuendo-driven banter and rumour-mongering amongst what appeared to be a group that was generally comprised of young, impressionable [employees].”
He also said though it was understandable the director would look to quash damaging rumours, the approach the director adopted failed to consider that the employee who falsely implicated the accountant did so to deflect attention from themselves.
How to investigate rumours: the right way
“Gossip in and of itself can’t be investigated because it isn’t usually put in such a way that you put clear allegations against someone,” says Worklogic director Jodie Fox. “But what it does do is give managers information that ‘here is something we need to find out more about’.”
She says if the rumours pertain to something concerning, such as an inappropriate relationship, then it’s imperative to act on it, but the approach has to be tactful.
“I think if you are aware that there’s a lot of damaging gossip going on in a particular area, the easiest way for human resources or managers to find out what’s going on is simply by having a conversation,” she says.
“Don’t immediately accuse anyone just say, ‘Now, I understand that there’s been a lot of Scuttlebutt about this particular topic. Do you want to just tell me what your understanding is?’
“Reassure them you’re just trying to get to the bottom of the issue, but also make it clear the conversation is confidential,” says Fox.
Hattingh says if the rumours are baseless you need to treat the employees that are gossiping like adults. We may think of gossip as schoolyard behaviour, but scolding employees is unlikely to do any good.
“Be clear in your feedback. I find the model of ‘situation, behaviour, impact’ allows you to give feedback in a way that references observable behaviour,” says Hattingh.
“Moreover, this model allows you, as a manager, to make the feedback objective, while firmly communicating what needs to change.”
Of course, the easiest way to address gossip is to get on the front foot and ensure employees have no reason to fill in the gaps with their own information. Gossip thrives in a vacuum.
“I think what’s important is to communicate regardless of whether or not you have anything to communicate,” says Fox. “Oftentimes people make the mistake of not communicating with staff because they don’t know what’s going to happen, or a decision hasn’t been made.”
Fox says regular catch-ups where employees are empowered to ask questions can go a long way to curbing the potential for rumours. Hattingh echoes Fox’s advice and says if staff aren’t comfortable speaking up then employers should provide a way to do so anonymously.
“If you’re in the position to do so, address any misinformation or rumours head-on,” says Hattingh. “We use a tool in our Friday ‘All Hands’ that allows users to submit questions, anonymously if they choose. We broadcast all the questions we receive, and the leadership team answers them during the meeting.”
Both Fox and Hattingh say HR should be even more vigilant about gossip in uncertain times, particularly when people might be concerned about job security.
“It can breed speculation, which can slowly be misinterpreted as fact in an office environment. It’s important to create psychological safety within the company,” says Hattingh. “This is where strong leadership comes into play through regular cadence and transparent communication.”
Sometimes gossip will reveal a darker problem within your workplace. AHRI’s short course on Investigating Workplace Misconduct takes HR though the challenge of handling serious complaints.