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Gossip in the Workplace Could Signal Larger Problems

Potentially harmful rumors can start because employees feel inadequately informed, and they can spread when companies fail to keep their promises to their workers.

Bottom LinePotentially harmful rumors can start because employees feel inadequately informed, and they can spread when companies fail to keep their promises to their workers.

When employees crowd into an elevator or meet up for happy hour, the conversation often turns to work-related issues. And frequently, the discussions include a fair amount of hearsay. Of course, workplace rumors aren’t always intended to be harmful. Lacking information from official channels, employees often spread rumors as a way to anticipate the scope and consequences of potential change—whispering that two departments will be merged in an upcoming acquisition, for example, or that benefits might be slashed.

But there’s another, more malevolent side to workplace scuttlebutt, which can take the form of bullying when employees use false information to gang up on a particular co-worker. Colleagues can also attempt to undercut one another or their supervisors by disseminating vindictive gossip. Indeed, a recent survey of workers in many different industries found that about 70 percent of employees admitted to spreading rumors about their company or colleagues.

Until now, researchers had yet to understand why employees would risk their jobs and reputations by disparaging their co-workers. But according to a new study, employees who snipe about their colleagues or bosses typically do so out of a desire to exact revenge because they feel they have been slighted. Rumors can be the “weapon of choice for the weak,” the authors write. These employees may seek to hurt a company by undermining team morale and company cohesion, banking on the clandestine nature of gossip to shield them from discovery or punishment.

Specifically, the authors found, workers are motivated to spread negative rumors after a perceived violation of the mutual obligations employees share with companies. In exchange for doing their jobs, employees expect companies to give them a fair chance to earn bonuses, gain job stability, achieve promotions, and work in a supportive environment. If employees believe that their firm has failed to carry out an important aspect of this psychological contract, they may be induced to slack off or, in the face of a serious breach of faith, undertake more damaging actions, including propagating negative rumors.

Rumors can be the “weapon of choice for the weak.”

The authors conducted the study in two parts: (1) a hypothetical experiment involving retail workers and (2) an analysis of survey data that measured employees’ transmission of rumors and how their actions were perceived by co-workers. They found that employees were far more likely to spread negative rumors if a company had reneged on certain incentives promised for hitting performance goals. When companies held up their end of the bargain, employees generally avoided indulging in hearsay.

Interestingly, the plausibility of a rumor barely factored into employees’ decisions to pass it on. This is especially worrying for managers because spreading false speculation in the workplace can spark unwarranted panic or create false hope, depending on the nature of the rumor, which can quickly put companies at a disadvantage.

 Employees are also most likely to turn on their colleagues or company when they believe in the “an eye for an eye” approach, in which unfair treatment is paid back accordingly. If given the opportunity, employees who have experienced injustice and believe in evening the score will rarely hesitate to spread harmful hearsay, the authors found, especially if they think they can get away with it. These employees seem to hope that by damaging the firm, they will restore balance to their work life and increase their self-value.

Obviously, companies need to head off any such motivations for revenge before they give rise to toxic gossip. Managers should receive training that helps them understand how rumors start and flow through an organization, as well as how to identify the sources of gossip. Poor communication from managers can plant the initial seeds of discontent, the authors warn. Supervisors should hold ongoing informal talks with employees to ensure that they’re on the same page about each employee’s psychological contract.

Beyond striving to treat employees fairly, companies should also own up when they let their workforce down. When guarantees can’t be met for unintended reasons, firms should be honest about how changing economic forecasts or circumstances beyond the firm’s control led to the breach of faith. Perhaps most important, managers must provide a formal, discretionary channel through which employees can vent their concerns; those who lack an officially sanctioned way to speak their mind may start whispering behind closed doors instead.

Source: “Rumor as Revenge in the Workplace,” Prashant Bordia (Australian National University), Kohyar Kiazad (Monash University), Simon Lloyd D. Restubog (Australian National University), Nicholas DiFonzo (Rochester Institute of Technology), Nicholas Stenson (University of Queensland), and Robert L. Tang (De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde), Group & Organization Management, Aug. 2014, vol. 39, no. 4



Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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