Archive for the ‘Office Gossip’ Category

In my last post, I explored the grapevine phenomenon and some of the effects (good and bad) it can have on an organization’s internal psyche and workplace relationships.

In case you missed it: online chatter and conversation has exploded. Social media and internet communications mean the spread of information (whether true or false) happens more rapidly, reaches more people, and crosses more boundaries within an organization. Trust and relationships that have taken years to build can be destroyed in mere seconds.

As managers, we have a few options:

1. Ignore that a grapevine and/or social media exist and adopt the all-too-common belief that if we ignore something, it will go away (hopefully you have learned by now that this is rarely the case);

2. Create punishments for those who feed the rumor mill (and in doing so discourage the honest and open communication social media promotes); or

3. Acknowledge and manage the grapevine, and use social media to the advantage of our organization when addressing rumors.

I’m solidly in favor of number 3. If you’re on board with me, keep reading…

Now that we know what we have to do, the big question remains how?

For advice, I turn to a couple sources:

Managing the Workplace Rumor Mill, by The HR Specialist for Business Management Daily

Dealing with Rumors in the Workplace, by Paul Brown for the New York Times

Both agree that the best measure is a preventative one: stop the rumors before they start (proactive internal communications is a subject for another day). But, even with the best internal communications practices, the grapevine will persist.

Building on these articles, and considering the constant presence of social media in our organizations, here are a few suggestions:

Listen and Learn. Social media offers managers an opportunity to watch a conversation unfold. Company blogs, Intranet posts, and corporate wikis provide insight into employee sentiment and concerns. E-mails and instant messages can help managers confirm suspicions or pick up on contextual clues (there is the added bonus of being able to reference them later).

Plan a Response. In a digital world where immediate replies have become the norm, it is hard to resist the urge to respond rashly—but you must. A poorly planned response or angry retort could easily perpetuate the rumor and do more harm than good.

When thinking about method of delivery, social media should not be excluded from the equation. Responding via social media shows that a manager is in tune with the organization and employees’ preferred communications methods (as long as social media is not a substitute for face-to-face communication – more on that later). Ask yourself whether your message is meant for one person or the entire organization, and make sure the use of social media reflects your intended audience.

And then…

Respond Directly. While face-to-face is almost always the best way to communicate with employees on matters of importance, it is not always possible (again, a topic for another day). Social media and internet communications provide a reliable way to ensure that people receive the same information from the same source at the same time. If your language is clear and your message direct, you are on the right track.

In the horticulture world, grapevines are pruned so that they yield the highest volume and quality of fruit. Internal communicators may use different tools but, if done correctly, the results are surprisingly similar.

Until next time…




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So what is this grapevine, anyway?

Dictionary.com defines it first and foremost as a vine that bears grapes (no relevance to this post). But coming in at a close second is “a person-to-person method of spreading rumors, gossip, information, etc., by informal or unofficial conversation, letter writing, or the like.”

For a rhythmic interpretation, I turn to Marvin Gaye:

“Ooh, bet you’re wonderin’ how I knew/
about your plans to make me blue
I heard it through the grapevine/
not much longer would you be mine.”

Was Gaye singing about the workplace? Hardly. But could he have been? Absolutely.

Present in every work environment to at least a certain degree, the grapevine is employees’ way of sharing and receiving information outside of a formal internal communications system. It validates feelings and draws attention to ideas and concerns that employees may be uncomfortable sharing with management. It takes place traditionally around water coolers, in lunch rooms, and at corporate picnics and softball games. It moves quickly and transmits information (or rumors, gossip, and the like) in all directions within an organization.

The grapevine has been around for a long time and some great research was done by Keith Davis back in 1953. He stated “the grapevine is a natural part of a company’s total communication system…it is a significant force within the work group, helping to build teamwork, motivate people, and create corporate identity.”

Managers can also use grapevines to take the pulse of their organization. How is morale? What are employees most concerned about? Not infrequently, grapevines help managers uncover issues in their organization that can then be addressed, and often resolved, via more formal communication systems.

But because of their tendency to spread like wildfire to all corners of an organization, grapevines can also be damaging to workplace morale, relationships, productivity, and corporate culture if they are mismanaged, ignored, or allowed to persist in all their inaccurate glory.

The use of technology in the workplace has added a layer of complexity to this issue. Grapevines have begun to take a new shape and, in many ways, are harder than ever to manage.

A 2007 Steelcase Workplace Index Survey revealed that the days of water cooler conversations may be over. Instead, employees were taking to the break room (36 percent), a colleague’s workspace (33 percent), or their e-mail inbox or instant messenger (10 percent) to collect the latest gossip.

A survey on trust and risk in the workplace conducted by Dr. Monica Whitty (Queens University Belfast in Ireland) of the same year found that 35% of women and 33% of men in the UK discussed office gossip over e-mail.

The abundance of e-mail, instant messaging, and social networking means office rumors can spread very quickly and to multiple people at once, and thus have a more widespread, detrimental effect. And watch out when it comes to office gossip that takes on a written form. In some cases it can even be used against employees or companies in legal matters.

Of course, not all office gossip ends up in the courtroom, and the likelihood of being arrested for ranting about one’s company’s policies is slim to none. Regardless, it seems safe to say that a new, virtual grapevine is here to stay. The question is whether and how managers will respond to the role of technology in disseminating gossip before it’s too late.

Until next time…



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