How Toxic Is Your Workplace?

You know you’ve experienced it, perhaps you’re even guilty of it. You and a group of colleagues congregate around for casual conversation. Before you know it, what feels like harmless chitchat turns into a near-whisper exchange about a co-worker’s recent demotion.

What many unsuspecting professionals don’t know is that when light conversation and idle chitchat elevates to derogatory reports about other people, you’re now trudging in the toxic terrain of gossip, which, according to the HR folk, is considered a form of attack and even workplace violence!

The damaging effects of gossip

study conducted by Georgia Institute of Technology analyzed 517,431 emails sent by Enron employees before the company imploded. Researchers discovered that about 1 in 7 of those emails were considered gossip.

Here are some surprising conclusions determined by this study:

• Gossip was common at every level of the organization.

• Low-level employees play a lead role in circulating gossip throughout the entire hierarchy, but directors and VPs are the most likely to spread gossip both up and down the chain.

• In-house lawyers are the next most likely to spread gossip downward.

• The sent email folders of some CEOs contained 100 percent gossipy emails.

• Gossip is as frequent in personal communications as it is in formal ones.

• Emails targeting a smaller audience are more likely to contain gossip.

• Some employees are constant “gossip sources,” while others are merely “silent readers.”

Based on my own observations of previous clients and personal experiences at previous employers, here some examples of the effects of gossip:

• People huddled in corners to rejoice in the misfortune of others.

• People enrolled in the gossip will stop by the gossiper’s desk or office to “get the latest,”  thus wasting precious company time. Work productivity would go down because people were emotionally caught up in the drama like teenage kids.

• The information being spread perpetuated conflict, created silos, and damaged the reputation of those being the target of gossip.

• Trust and company morale gradually declined as people were divided and took sides.

• Anxiety and tension were high as rumors circulated and people walked on eggshells without knowing what was and wasn’t fact.

• Unexpected turnover and loss of good talent occured due to the toxic work environment.

6 ways to stop gossip

If you’ve been around these co-workers, as their unhappiness and resentment increase, so will the gossip. They’ll quickly spread their tumor by enlisting others into their negative spin campaign.

Here are five ways to stop the gossip by

fostering the right environment at work.

1. Model the behaviors that stand up to gossip.

Be a good role model for others to follow and don’t engage in the gossip. Be assertive, walk away, or change the subject when the gossip starts. If you’re a manager, enact a strict, ‘zero-tolerance’ policy against workplace gossip. The message you’re communicating to others is that the behavior won’t be tolerated

2. Encourage “positive gossip.”

Create a culture where people share positive stories about work, customers, and culture. Think of examples where peers and bosses can communicate to each other what they feel proud about at work. Start morning huddles with praise and positive gossip and reinforce the cultural values and key behaviors you want through story-telling.

3. Ignore the gossiper. 

Gossipmongers thrive on attention and will prey on open and inviting ears. Your course of action is to be busy and preoccupied with your work (as you should be), so you’re not available to listen. When the gossiper hands off the juicy gossip baton to you (because they want to spread it by enlisting other gossipers), don’t take it.

4. Disarm the gossiper with positivity.

When a gossiper is about to dish you the dirty details at the expense of a valued co-worker, turn it back on the gossiper by saying something refreshingly positive that you perceive to be true and fair about the person being targeted.

5. Ask yourself, “Can I trust this person?”

Unless you have absolute certainty that you can trust a coworker, the rule of thumb is plain and simple: Don’t trust personal information with anyone at work that will be fodder for gossip.

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