Get Off the Water Cooler: How to Tell Your Employees to Stop Gossiping

Remember when you graduated high school and thought you’d be free of rumors, gossip, and petty BS for the rest of your life? Ha! I’m sure it took you all of ten minutes to realize that stuff never really goes away. But if you’re in a supervisory position at your workplace, it’s up to you to ensure that your employees keep it to a minimum. If left unchecked, office gossip can result in lowered morale across the board, workers resigning, or, in extreme cases, lawsuits being filed. Remember: you’re in charge, and you have the power to create a friendly, productive work environment. It will take some work, but maintaining a positive environment is much easier than improving a broken one.

1. Figure out the Source

Once rumors get started, the entire office turns into one big game of Telephone. It can be incredibly difficult to figure out who started a rumor, especially when the original statement gets additional rumors added on to it and it takes on a life of its own. But, of course, there has to have been a single person who started the ugly thing in the first place.

Find out who that person is and address them privately. Don’t make a huge scene; you don’t want to embarrass them (which would be just as unprofessional as starting a rumor). Discuss with them the negative impact they’ve had on the person or people involved in the rumor, the team as a whole, and the entire company. They may not have even realized how detrimental their actions have been—not that this is a valid excuse.

Ensure they know that such subversion will not be tolerated, and that any future insubordination will be grounds for disciplinary action (wow, that entire sentence just sounds scary, doesn’t it?). Let them know the office is not the place for their childish antics, and they need to make a choice as to which they value more: their adolescent games or their job.

2. Meet with the Whole Team

After you address the situation individually and privately, make it a point to discuss the role gossip has in the workplace (that is, it has none). Without pointing fingers, bring it to the team’s attention that you know what’s been going on, and that it won’t be tolerated. Essentially, reinforce everything you said to the individual, but make sure the entire group is on the same page. Remind them that they’re only there for one reason: to get work done. There is definitely a time and place for work-related fun and recreational activities, but this fun must be shared by the entire team. Spreading rumors and talking about people behind their backs is, again, subversive and detrimental to the entire company. Make sure everyone knows that, and knows how serious you are about it.

One thing to be sure of is that the time taken to discuss this behavior should be kept to a minimum. You don’t want to waste an entire hour-long meeting going over the negative impact rumors have on a team. Heck, the more time you waste, the more likely the perpetrator is to continue his actions; you don’t think he wants to actually get down to business, do you?

3. Encourage Positive Talk

Like I said, just because an office is a place of business doesn’t mean everyone has to be downright miserable. Encourage your team to talk positively about each other. It might seem cheesy, but picture the difference between an office full of positive thought versus one full of detrimental comments. Wouldn’t you rather hear people talk about how well a colleague performed on a presentation than how incompetent they are? Your team might not even realize it, but the small jabs they make at each other slowly but surely bring down morale across the board. While it may be easier to throw sarcastic remarks at each other when you’re stuck at work, it’s much more beneficial to keep a positive outlook about things.

Creating a positive work environment can be done in a variety of ways. Having monthly meetings in which your team’s accomplishments are discussed will result in acknowledgement of each other’s efforts and work ethic. You might even choose employees of the month—just be sure that you’re not patronizing your staff by doing so. Informally, make sure to compliment your team members for minor accomplishments throughout the day. Yes, they’re paid to be there and money is a great reward, but a pat on the back can only make them feel better. Again, do so earnestly; if your team gets the feeling that you’re just paying lip service, they’ll turn on you quicker than you could possibly imagine.

4. Model the Correct Behavior

As alluded in the previous section, you can’t just demand your team to stay positive if you aren’t positive yourself. This is easier said than done, of course. Being a leader means you have to put your own feelings on the backburner, and stay as optimistic as possible when your team is looking to you for guidance. Chances are you have a boss who has made at least a few decisions you completely disagree with. That doesn’t give you the right to throw him under the bus or talk about him to your team. All that will do is turn them against your supervisor, which you definitely don’t want. Even if a colleague or employee comes to you and laments about a decision made by “the powers that be,” don’t fall into the trap. Instead, remind him that it’s neither his nor your place to question their decisions; you only need to follow the mandates handed down to you. Show your team it’s one thing to disagree with each other, but being insubordinate ensures that everyone fails.

5. Provide Time for Training and Team-Building Exercises

Ugh, the T-word. I know, I know: just uttering the phrase “professional development” is enough to make most people think about using a sick day. But if morale at the office has gotten so low that you fear for the future of the company, something must be done to fix it. If one person is continually the source of negativity and rumor-spreading, they certainly will benefit from some sensitivity training (as a last-ditch effort before you start handing out pink slips). Enlist the help of continuing education resources in your community, and find team-building classes that would benefit not just that person, but your entire staff as a whole. The people behind the nasty rumors may be less inclined to say such dreadful things if they actually take the time to get to know all of their colleagues on a personal level.

If they still don’t respond positively, take them out to happy hour. What could go wrong?

See Also: Employees Are More Productive When They Have Friends at Work

Supervising a staff is tough work. Not only do you have to make sure everyone stays on task and continues to be productive, but you also have to deal with a variety of personalities at the same time. It’d be nice if people could leave their adolescent attitude at home, but for the most part that simply won’t happen. I mean, until the robots take over, that is.  

Forbes - New Managers: 5 Ways To Stop Negative Office Gossip