Office gossip can be one of the most corrosive, destructive problems faced by small business owners. In many cases, gossip is malicious – even hostile – spreading discord across the company. Office gossip can destroy employee friendships and create office cliques that exclude “outsiders” – even outsiders with quality (and much needed) input. When employees fail to communicate essential business information, productivity drops because staff is working with partial information.

Office gossip can also become dangerous, leading to workplace violence – something small business owners (SBOs) must address ASAP. A victim of workplace violence is a walking, talking lawsuit waiting to happen, and workplace violence of any kind – physical, verbal, emotional, psychological –is unacceptable.

It’s important that a “no gossip” policy starts at the top. Write up a company statement of rules and regulations regarding water cooler chatter (both in person or digitally), and make sure that company policy appears in the employee manual, that all new hires are informed of the “no gossip” policy, and that current employees are brought up to speed on this important change in policy.

Not all office chatter is gossip. Co-workers talk about each other and the work they perform as members of the team. Discussing business relationships with co-workers isn’t necessarily gossip if it’s general, positive, calm, and informative. On the other hand, if an employee tries to impugn the integrity of a co-worker, or otherwise hurt that co-worker, with malicious gossip, you have a problem that needs fixing quickly.

Track the office grapevine. In a small company, gossip often spreads throughout the business quickly via the office “grapevine.”  Make sure your IT professional provides access to inter-office communications like office email accounts. Don’t make your surveillance of company accounts a secret. Be open with employees, explain why email is monitored, and introduce the zero tolerance policy on malicious gossip.

Do your research before taking any action. Gather the facts. Who started the latest rumor? Who forwarded in-house emails to other employees? Does inter-departmental cyber-bullying play a role?

Zero tolerance means no exceptions. If your facts indicate that an employee is spreading malicious rumors through in-house channels (including lunch chats), it’s time to sit down with that staff member to discuss and assess the consequences. Repeated offences could even lead to letting employees go.

Lock down office data and workspace when not in use. Gossipers who have access to sensitive company data could share that data with other people – which may lead to more gossip – and that’s bad for you and bad for your business.

Talk to your team. Banning office gossip isn’t a punishment, and most employees will appreciate this new emphasis on putting a stop to spreading toxic gossip. Be sure to explain how employees can avoid the trap of office gossip so every employee knows what is and is NOT acceptable behavior. Here are some suggestions:

  • Avoid gossip sessions in the office. If the conversation turns malicious, simply leave.
  • Never provide positive feedback to a gossiper. In fact, people who spread gossip enjoy the spotlight, so if you act interested, or worse, ask probing questions, all you’re doing is fueling the fire. If it sounds like hurtful gossip, just walk away.
  • Treat gossip negatively. Tell office gossipers to stop sending malicious emails. Stop the gossiper by stopping those who spread gossip. After a few attempts to engage you in an intra-office flame war, the office gossips will leave you alone.
  • Keep your personal business personal. How long before the whole office knows about your impending divorce? One hour and you’re the subject of office gossip. Keep your personal life out of the office.
  • Make sure the co-workers you share time with are trustworthy. If your workplace friends can’t keep your information secure, they aren’t really friends, are they?

Stop office gossip before it starts by defining gossip, creating a written policy to address infractions, and talk to your staff about just how dangerous office gossip can be. You may not be able to stop every rumor from whizzing through the office, but you can create a policy to deal with malicious gossip regardless of how it’s spread.

Take a pro-active stance against office gossip – a problem you just don’t need.