The HR Specialist

The water cooler dies: Office gossip spreads faster online

Employees swapping gripes, gossip and good laughs at the water cooler … it’s a stereotypical American office scene. But more often these days, that gossip is traveling through the wires in the walls and flying through the air via e-mail, text messages, cell calls and more.

Gossip and nonwork chatter that spread via e-mail, instant messages (IMs) or texting can easily be captured and saved, possibly for a jury to see someday. 

Hot gossip can also chew up lots of productive workplace hours. A survey by Equisys, a communications firm, says the average employee spends 65 hours a year gossiping at work.

The solution: Don’t let workplace-related gossip spread unfettered. Establish a reputation as an open-door HR department, and become a “news creator” rather than constantly responding with damage control to squash rumors.

Why is that vital? In workplaces without a consistent way of communicating news, 31% of employees say that “off the record” conversations with bosses is their first source of news, with office gossip a close second at 28%, according to a survey of 700 office workers by Opinion Research Corp.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of survey respondents reported that people in their workplace gossip about company news all, most or some of the time.

The most likely to gossip? Young workers. Only 9% of workers age 18-24 say they keep office gossip quiet, compared with 19% of those age 25-34; 34% of those age 35-44; 39% of those age 45-54; and 48% of those age 55-64.

Workplace rumors: 4 ways HR can tame the beast

1. Take note of subtle changes in the atmosphere. When your bustling workplace becomes quiet and conversations halt when you walk into a room—beware. Dispel the mystery by asking directly, “What’s going on?” Listen and respond.

2. Announce upcoming changes, when possible. If you can’t tell employees of changes ahead of time, expect rumors to spread and ready yourself to manage them. Stay particularly alert in situations that breed uncertainty. But be equally candid about the type of information you can (and will) share. Refuse to indulge in the rumor mill.

3. Head off rumors at the pass. Establish a reputation for having an open and aboveboard style, and encourage managers to do the same. If employees believe you’ll be straight with them, they’ll be more likely to come to you for answers. Couple that with an office door that is truly open and you’ll avoid 99% of the problems.

4. Tap into the grapevine. Fine-tune your “radar” and question employees if you suspect that rumors might be developing. Rumors grow when information is scarce.


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