Is there anything more corrosive to everything HR stands for than gossip? It undermines morale, wastes time, reduces productivity, affects mental health and creates conflict. And that’s just in the HR team!
But tackling office gossip can feel like Canute on the seashore, trying to hold back the tide. After all, we like communication. We want people to build bridges and talk and not sit in their functional silos. We like work-life balance that humanizes and brightens our work experience. So tackling office gossip with threats of disciplinary action, and brow-beating offenders into teeth-grinding silence feels like the opposite of good HR practice.
Fortunately, as ever, I have a handy metaphor to help you navigate your way between the Scylla of gossip and the Charybdis of silence.
Fire needs heat, fuel and oxygen to burn. Take away any one of these and the fire will die.
Gossip is very much the same, but its ingredients are opportunity, time and boredom. And HR can stifle malicious gossip, without harming constructive dialogue, by concentrating on any one of these.
It’s not called “water cooler chat” for nothing. The water cooler, coffee machine or kitchen area are office hubs: those places where people get to step away from their work, however briefly, to refuel. And because they are hubs, they are where you tend to meet other people you don’t often talk to.
This, of course, is a good thing. In HR, we love hubs where people can talk, share ideas, break down barriers and innovate together, and if it starts by sharing the events of last night’s TV, well that’s fine too. But this is also where gossip grows.
Taking away the hubs will certainly reduce the opportunity for gossip, but will throw out the baby with the bathwater. So a smarter approach is required. Hubs foster gossip when they are out of the way, unseen by managers and others whose presence would discourage malicious chat. So moving them to a more visible, more public location will continue to encourage conversation whilst quashing back-biting, sniping and speculation.
If you can’t move the hubs, you can exercise more control over when they’re used. Whilst you could be proscriptive and start dictating break times, it is more helpful to be prescriptive: arrange dedicated times during the day or week when people are encouraged to come to the hub. A good example is the trend for “Lunch and Learn” sessions in which learning and eating lunches in break-rooms are combined. Most people take only so many breaks per day and if you reduce the number of those that are randomly organized and increase the number of people and raise the purpose of such breaks, so the opportunity to gossip will come down.
The next ingredient that gossip needs is time. Not all gossip happens at a hub, and the other chance gossip has to break into life is during a lull in activity. If two or more people have a lull at the same time and they are inclined to gossip – gossip will happen. The obvious riposte to this is “keep people busy!” And as short-term, temporary fix to a gossip problem, this is an easy and attractive solution – shorten all the deadlines and raise the workload!
But whilst this might have a powerful effect on reducing gossip, it will also affect morale and people’s stress levels – and, therefore, their well-being.
You can do better by making sure there’s something more constructive to do with people’s lull time. For example, completing online training, updating notes or reports or putting some time into a long-term project.
The reason gossip is such a feature of the human condition is that we are natural story-tellers. We seek narrative, which might also be called “meaning”. When we find ourselves in an environment that lacks narrative, we make up our own. So if you have a dull job and you work at a fake-pine desk on a grey desktop, surrounded by magnolia walls and cream-and-avocado filing cabinets, it’s no wonder that your brain hungers for narrative and snatches at every thread that’s offered, however ludicrous or malign.
Whilst we can do our best to make jobs meaningful (which means fitting them into the compelling narrative of your organization – a blog for another day, I suspect), it has to be acknowledged that some (perhaps quite a lot) of what we do everyday just isn’t that compelling. But that’s no reason to be bored to gossip, because narrative comes from everything around us.
Art, activities, puzzles… Software companies don’t have table tennis tables, ball pools and foyer slides because they’re cool. They have them because getting up, moving around and engaging our brains differently keeps us engaged in the narrative or encourages us to create new narratives that can prompt innovation and productivity. I’m not advocating for office “fun”. But if the work you do isn’t necessarily setting your people’s minds on fire, then investing in some proper art might be money well spent. And I don’t mean dreadful “motivational” posters. Just get yourself down to the nearest independent cafe and buy everything from local artists that they have on their walls. It may not be good, but it will be stimulating, one way or another.
 Actually, they do in some cases. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t also useful.