Peter Vajda identifies gossip as a form of workplace violence, noting that it is “essentially a form of attack.” Gossip is thought by many to “empower one person while disempowering another” (Hafen). Accordingly, many companies have formal policies in their employee handbooks against gossip. Sometimes there is room for disagreement on exactly what constitutes unacceptable gossip, since workplace gossip may take the form of offhand remarks about someone’s tendencies such as “He always takes a long lunch,” or “Don’t worry, that’s just how she is.” TLK Healthcare cites as examples of gossip, “tattletailing to the boss without intention of furthering a solution or speaking to co-workers about something someone else has done to upset us.” Corporate email can be a particularly dangerous method of gossip delivery, as the medium is semi-permanent and messages are easily forwarded to unintended recipients; accordingly, a Mass High Tech article advised employers to instruct employees against using company email networks for gossip. Low self-esteem and a desire to “fit in” are frequently cited as motivations for workplace gossip. There are five essential functions that gossip has in the workplace (according to DiFonzo & Bordia):
Helps individuals learn social information about other individuals in the organization (often without even having to meet the other individual)
Builds social networks of individuals by bonding co-workers together and affiliating people with each other.
Breaks existing bonds by ostracizing individuals within an organization.
Enhances one’s social status/power/prestige within the organization.
Inform individuals as to what is considered socially acceptable behavior within the organization.
According to Kurkland and Pelled, workplace gossip can be very serious depending upon the amount of power that the gossiper has over the recipient, which will in turn affect how the gossip is interpreted. There are four types of power that are influenced by gossip:
Coercive: when a gossiper tells negative information about a person, their recipient might believe that the gossiper will also spread negative information about them. This causes the gossiper’s coercive power to increase.
Reward: when a gossiper tells positive information about a person, their recipient might believe that the gossiper will also spread positive information about them. This causes the gossiper’s reward power to increase.
Expert: when a gossiper seems to have very detailed knowledge of either the organization’s values or about others in the work environment, their expert power becomes enhanced.
Referent: this power can either be reduced OR enhanced to a point. When people view gossiping as a petty activity done to waste time, a gossiper’s referent power can decrease along with their reputation. When a recipient is thought of as being invited into a social circle by being a recipient, the gossiper’s referent power can increase, but only to a high point where then the recipient begins to resent the gossiper (Kurland & Pelled).
Some negative consequences of workplace gossip may include:
Lost productivity and wasted time,
Erosion of trust and morale,
Increased anxiety among employees as rumors circulate without any clear information as to what is fact and what isn’t,
Growing divisiveness among employees as people “take sides,”
Hurt feelings and reputations,
Jeopardized chances for the gossipers’ advancement as they are perceived as unprofessional, and
Attrition as good employees leave the company due to the unhealthy work atmosphere.
Turner and Weed theorize that among the three main types of responders to workplace conflict are attackers who cannot keep their feelings to themselves and express their feelings by attacking whatever they can. Attackers are further divided into up-front attackers and behind-the-back attackers. Turner and Weed note that the latter “are difficult to handle because the target person is not sure of the source of any criticism, nor even always sure that there is criticism.”
It is possible however, that there may be illegal, unethical, or disobedient behavior happening at the workplace and this may be a case where reporting the behavior may be viewed as gossip. It is then left up to the authority in charge to fully investigate the matter and not simply look past the report and assume it to be workplace gossip.
Informal networks through which communication occurs in an organization are sometimes called the grapevine. In a study done by Harcourt, Richerson, and Wattier, it was found that middle managers in several different organizations believed that gathering information from the grapevine was a much better way of learning information than through formal communication with their subordinates (Harcourt, Richerson & Wattier).