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Live and work 'on the record'

Rumor has it that gossip is a problem

Live and work 'on the record'

Ann Humphries

(CNN) -- Don't tell anybody we told you this, but -- wait, wait, wait, somebody's coming ...

OK, it's fine, they're gone.

So what were we saying?

Oh yeah. Look out, keep your voice down. The deal is -- darn it, hang on, I can't tell you right now, BooBoo is watching, you know how he always hides behind the Xerox and peeks out like that? There. See him?

CNN: Walk over here so I can tell you. Oops -- no, hush. Here comes Ann Humphries.

Ann Humphries: Gossip at work is a reality. But it doesn't have to overwhelm you. And it presents a lot of special problems in the workplace because while you can't censor people, office gossip and rumors can be so destructive.

graphic Not everyone agrees that gossip is negative. How do you feel about it in the workplace?

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No big deal.
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I've become so sensitive to this that I can't even talk about somebody having seen a movie if they're not in my presence -- I never want to look as if I'm talking behind someone's back.

On a grand scale -- maybe too nice a term, let's say on a "large" scale -- gossip and rumor achieve the class of strategy. This is seen most easily in politics. Information or misinformation is placed as hearsay. Corporate strategy can involve this. On such levels it can become very sophisticated but nonetheless harmful.

I had an employee once who was a "talker." She ran in political circles. She had a lot of information, much of it right. I had to be so guarded around her. And her reputation as a talker tended to invalidate her. The very thing she was known for doing -- and even valued for -- shaded how people saw her.

In business, the gossip is a loose cannon. The typical image of a gossip is of a busybody -- male or female. Someone with too much spare time. Hardly cost-effective. And intent on stirring things up. One component of standard gossip-mongering usually seems to be a pleasure in rattling everyone.

Quite often, gossip is very personal, too. Potentially hurtful on the personal level.

Now, consider that some comments you might initially classify as gossip may not be. For example: "When you deal with Bryant, you'd better have all your numbers right." Or: "Melanie goes ballistic when she sees a typo in copy." Those are useful procedural details about company requirements.

It crosses the line into gossip when there's no carriage of hard information, and perhaps into criticism of someone because of how picky he or she is about numbers or how "ballistic" someone goes about typos.

And when it crosses that line, it starts sapping the energy of a corporation.

And sometimes just leaving a conversation isn't effective. You have to pick your battles. But you can inadvertantly appear to have picked one by not talking. You become acquiescent, at least in others' eyes. You can appear to be a collaborator if you allow something to be said in your presence.

OK, we've got your grapevine right here. Many of our best topics for Corporate Class have been suggested by ... well, sorry, we can't tell you who exactly, that would be gossiping. Readers. Much like yourself. So whisper the career-etiquette issues that are bugging you. Click here for our handy submission form.  And don't worry about anyone knowing who said it: We've never seen you before in our lives.

What you may need to do, if you're finding a lot of gossip in your workplace, is simply conduct your life in a way that won't invite it. You want to find what's at the root of rumors when they come in: What's the source and what's the motivation?

I think people gossip because they lack power. They're trying to establish an identity.

And management can have an impact on this. In a crisis situation, for example, around which there may be a lot of rumors, management can step in and say, "We know you've been hearing a lot of things about this -- here's the real situation." That sets the tone. Give your employees enough information -- out of respect for them -- and if they trust that you're giving them all the information you can, they'll like that.

Here's the phrase: "On the record." You want to live and work on it.

•   Are you passing on information about somebody that you'd want others to have about you?

•   Could you defend your conversation to the person it's about?

I know one person who challenges rumor and gossip, directly. "Who said that? Show me the evidence of what you're telling me? Do you really know this to be true?" You can defuse a lot of dangerous chatter that way, if you're willing to be a mild spoilsport.

And of course one more way to deal with this sort of thing is to plant positive gossip. Pass along compliments. Speak well of people.

Take the wind out of the alarmists and pessimists. Drive them crazy: Spread happy gossip.

Next week: Putting out fires at work.

South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges has named Ann Humphries, founder and president of ETICON Inc., one of seven South Carolina Women of Achievement. Humphries, who's based in Columbia, is a Certified Professional Consultant to Management. Her clients have included several Fortune 500 companies. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Money, and on CNN, CBS and Lifetime TV. You can contact her at



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