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Originally published Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Gossip can be toxic to the workplace — and your reputation

Like a lot of employees, Sandra works in a cube farm in which nearby co-workers can pretty much overhear every word she says on the phone...

Special to The Seattle Times

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Zip the gossips' lips

Gossip can have a highly negative impact on an organization. Though the media have made it popular to discuss the private lives of movie stars, sports figures, politicians and other well-known people, organizations should make it clear that malicious gossiping has no place there.

Gossip flourishes in toxic environments with poor or repressive communication. If that describes your workplace, try to change it.

High-tech gossiping should be a special concern. First, it is generally done on company time and at company expense. Second, communication technology expands the negative implications of gossiping exponentially. Make sure your organization has a well-defined policy on the personal use of technology — including e-mails, text messaging and blogs.

Special consideration needs to be given regarding gossip in those industries where confidentiality is a prime concern. Medical establishments, mental-health agencies and law offices are three prime examples. The public must expect that personal information disclosed there will not be made public by careless employees. Hold regular training on the issue and address it in employee handbooks.

Like a lot of employees, Sandra works in a cube farm in which nearby co-workers can pretty much overhear every word she says on the phone. This wouldn't matter so much if those co-workers didn't include one very malicious gossip.

"He took a grand dislike to me instantly," said Sandra, of New York, who asked that her last name not be used. "He listens to phone calls. He then tells everyone your business."

Unfortunately, that has included malicious gossip about her health, Sandra said. When he overheard Sandra talking with her allergist about seeing a pulmonologist, he assumed she had TB.

And that's exactly what he spread around the office of the state agency where they both worked, gossip toxic enough to make people shrink from her. It was but the latest in a string of stories he'd passed around.

When she's tried to talk to her managers or human resources about the problem, she's faced blank walls: "Management chooses not to deal with it and tells me I have a thin skin."

Sandra, who is 59, feels she has no choice but to endure her co-worker's constant barrage of gossip about her because she has two years until retirement. "It's not a good time in life to change jobs," she said.

Unlike the laughs of the TV show "The Office," this is the hurtful side of office gossip. Sometimes it can be true, but harmful anyway; more often it's simply false. In all cases, at least initially, the person or people being gossiped about have no idea what is happening and can do nothing to stop its spread. And afterward, they will never be able to reach every person who has heard the gossip to explain it or assure them it's not true. It's a bell that can't be unrung.

It can also be devastating to a workplace.

Take the case of the Hooksett, N.H., Town Four — the city workers abruptly fired in 2007 after a lawyer hired by the town found they had talked — read: gossiped — about a rumor regarding the town administrator.

After an investigation, the town council fired the women, finding, "Gossip, whispering and an unfriendly environment are causing poor morale and interfering with the efficient performance of town business."

News of the incident spread around the country as The Boston Globe and even The New York Times wrote about the firings and how they consumed the small town.

Gossip vs. rumors

For nearly anyone who has worked in an organization of any size, from a small church to a Fortune 500 company to a university, gossip is the background music of nearly all human transactions. Sometimes it's merely an annoyance, but other times, it's a malevolent force that destroys careers, decreases productivity, spawns lawsuits and damages the reputations of organizations of all stripes.

Though children of a common mother, gossip and rumor are different. A rumor is the transmission of information, such as a guess that a company may be sold.

Gossip, on the other hand, involves the exchange of personal information despite the knowledge it could damage another person's reputation, social standing, privacy or emotional well-being.

Despite the profound effects it can have on a workplace, you'll seldom find a seminary, college or MBA program offering courses on office gossip, either on identifying it or managing an organization to discourage it. This means that few managers have much experience or knowledge in dealing with it.

Blaine Sampson, the CEO of an IT consulting company in Kansas City and a private consultant on improving group and individual communications, says technology has only made office gossip worse. Text messaging and e-mail allow gossips to lay their victims low and ruin the atmosphere of an organization in a flash, he believes, because they encourage sloppiness and speed over thoughtfulness and deliberateness, and lack any real interpersonal feedback. "Everyone sends out the first draft of an e-mail," he dryly notes.

"At least when people used to gossip, they were talking to someone — it was one-on-one," he said. "Now it's one on 1,000. Gossip used to be somewhat restrained. Now it's viral, and you can't track it down anymore. Where can you go to get your good name back?"

Many times Sampson has sat down with people who have written gossipy e-mails in an organization and heard the person insist that they were just being blunt or honest.

To break through that denial, he often asks them to read the gossipy message aloud: "When they hear it out loud, it's, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it. No wonder that person got out of shape.' " In the case of one particular poison-pen e-mailer, "He could not look anyone in the face and read his own correspondence," Sampson recalled.

The fall of Helen

And that kind of toxic gossip can rob organizations of hardworking and talented employees. It forced Helen to leave the Seattle office where she worked for another job, even though she loved and was good at the one she had. A co-worker used gossip to undermine her at every turn, said Helen, who asked to be known by her middle name for privacy and to avoid problems at her new office.

"What happened," she said, "was a co-worker pretty much set out to sabotage me."

She first got an inkling something was going on when she went to speak to someone in the company's finance office for some help on a foreign transaction. It was a perfectly civil exchange, even pleasant, Helen initially thought. Minutes later came a call from the head of the finance department asking Helen why she was "demanding" services.

"I said I was asking, not 'demanding' anything," said a puzzled Helen. "But a few days later I went down and apologized anyway."

That apology got a frosty reception, she said. "I discovered one of my co-workers had been spreading rumors that I was a princess and a prima donna and earning ... more than I was actually making. What she was doing was spreading the rumors through administrative stuff ... so they saw me as being a real bitch before they even knew me."

Time and time again, the other woman spread rumors about her, making it hard to work with others, Helen said. "It made getting the work done twice as hard."

The gossip forced her to find another job. "It was disappointing," she recalled. "I still have a bitter taste in my mouth."

Gossip causes so many problems for its victims, she said. First is figuring out that it's actually happening. Then, when you do, it makes you blame yourself, she said. Finally, it's your word against someone else's, and managers are often reluctant to do anything, or worse, blame the victim.

"First off, you don't know to go looking for it," she said. "By the time you figure out it was going on, you ask [yourself], 'Why can't you make relationships work in the office?'

"If you were to confront the [gossip] they will portray you as emotional and deceitful."

In Sandra's case, she finds herself growing nostalgic for her previous job at a prison. "It didn't have this type of gossip," she said. "They won't put up with it. It's military kind of thinking. They have to count on you to be responsive in an emergency. If we're in lockdown and you're off gossiping, that won't work."

Seattle writer Elaine Porterfield is the author, with Dr. Timothy Williams and Dr. Art Dykstra, of "Words Around the Water Cooler ... and Worse: Taming Office Gossip," due out later this year.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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