It seems to be human nature to tell ourselves stories to explain the things that happen in our lives, but what happens when those stories start to affect the way employees feel at work? Here are some practical tips for managers on handling office gossip. 

Imagine that there’s a restructure at your company, and that this is the information you have collected:

Given that information, what story would you, as an employee, put together?

This is a real-life example from a group of employees I trained recently. They told me this story:

“Well, it takes a while to plan for redundancy; they knew about it a while before they told us. So, they decided who they wanted to get rid of, and told the managers who to encourage to get training, so when the selection criteria for redundancy were announced, they had already targeted the people they wanted to get rid of.”

The thing about these stories is that they are credible – perhaps not probable, but definitely believable.

Very simply, where there is a vacuum of information, people will fill it with their own stories. This storytelling sometimes takes the shape of gossip and rumours; they might be reflecting people’s fears and concerns. It’s a natural reaction to a lack of information.

Listening to gossip

The good thing about these stories for managers is that they clearly signpost the fact that information is missing or highlight a deeper underlying problem. Additionally, one of the most important things managers can do is to listen to their employees.

I actually ask people to listen to and collect rumours and gossip, fears and concerns, and I ask them to then identify in detail what the individual issues are.

So, for example, one concern that is definitely not strategic but that comes up very often as an issue for staff is the lack of parking.

When this does come up, I ask employees to identify as closely as they can the number of people who find the lack of parking upsetting and then to analyse why.

Very simply, where there is a vacuum of information, people will fill it with their own stories.

Over and over, it turns out that it is parents – and especially single parents – who are impacted by the lack of parking, for the very simple reason that they cannot turn up early to get that space like other people can, because they have to take care of dropping off their kids.

This very quickly can be seen as unfair at best, discriminatory at worst.

Digging deeper

Once we’ve gotten to this point, it becomes easier to identify the strategic questions that staff can ask of management: what is their policy on discrimination? Have they considered flex-time as an option, and if so, what might that look like?

Not only are these strategic questions – they relate to how well the business is being run, but they are questions that everyone will want to know the answers to.

One of the most important things managers can do is to listen to their employees.

So, the thing to do is not to ignore or push back when people come to their managers with fears and concerns, rumours and gossip, but to ask them to dig deeper. It’s in digging deeper that the strategic considerations can be identified.

Here are the steps:

  1. Write down all the rumours, gossip, fears and concerns
  2. Identify which employees feel they are negatively impacted
  3. Analyse why they might be impacted
  4. Dig deep: what are the real issues?
  5. Identify the strategic considerations that address those individual issues

What credible workplace rumours have you heard that demonstrate the vacuum of information? Share your experiences in the comment box below. 

Interested in finding out more? Read Gossip in your workplace probably does you more good than harm.

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