Workplace Gossip vs. Strategic Communication
People are constantly talking at work, from morning coffee chats to discussions in company meetings to calls with clients. But how do we know when a conversation is relevant or acceptable in the workplace versus when it transitions to gossip?
Let’s cover the differences between communication and gossip, and set standards your workforce can easily follow so you can identify what talk builds teams and what talk can damage them.
What Is the Difference Between Workplace Gossip and Strategic Communication?
Workplace gossip doesn’t work toward the common goal of your organization’s success, while strategic communication delivers professional and necessary information to the most appropriate person in an official communication channel.
In a professional environment, the stakes are higher if gossip takes hold. You don’t want your organization’s culture to feel the harmful effects of workplace gossip. Teams are most effective when everyone communicates openly and honestly—talking behind each other's backs can cause working relationships to suffer.
But sometimes, what sounds like gossip isn’t actually gossip. If people are coming to you with comments or concerns about a colleague, you may get put in the awkward position of needing to step in. This doesn’t mean you’re gossiping about anyone or that employees are seeking you out for a bit of drama. They are communicating strategically to maintain the equilibrium of the workplace.
As HR, you’re the hub of communication between employees and each other, employees and the organization, and sometimes even employees and external stakeholders. Knowing the best way to communicate is key to success.
You probably already know how to identify obvious gossip, but we want to dive deeper to help you determine the best communication strategies to help you and your organization maintain a professional environment.
Do’s and Don’ts When Communicating in the Workplace
Let’s review some do’s and don'ts of office talk, so you can cover your bases when communicating strategically, and encourage others by setting the standard.1. Do know what is your responsibility to say.
Don’t participate in or encourage “water-cooler” chats. “Water-cooler” chats are informal conversations that rarely advance a team's goals. Examples include commenting on other people’s appearances or discussing colleagues' personal lives.
Also, consider that any talk about your organization that is harmful and unfounded counts as gossip. Employees shouldn’t predict if someone else is getting fired soon or speculate that the organization isn’t doing well financially.
As HR, you play a much more dangerous game than the average employee if you share anything. You probably have more access to company records, employees’ personal information, and the behind-the-scenes happenings of each team. There will be times when you bear the responsibility of warning an employee that they’re on their third strike or instructing an intern that they wash their own dishes in your office’s kitchen. Be mindful of everything you know and how little of it should be known by anyone else.
For example, if your boss told you that they are on the fence about whether to choose Florida or Texas for the annual company retreat, don’t excitedly tell others how fun Dallas will be. Dallas may be the winning destination, but you don’t want to communicate important information before the decision-makers are ready.
Water-cooler conversations are often shallow and uninformed and certainly don’t advance careers or goals—but they do run a high risk of hurting a coworker’s feelings and potentially spreading destructive rumors about your organization.2. Don’t say anything that isn’t timely and necessary.
Work-related communication should always happen at the correct time and contain important information.
An example of timely and necessary communication may be performance questions or observations. If one of your managers has observed a consistent dip in their direct report’s productivity, then that’s something you need to know at that time to decide the best course of action. Or if a colleague levies complaints about their desk neighbor for being distracting, you may need to step in and say something to prevent future issues.
But sometimes, you don’t need to say anything. If one of your employees often complains about a coworker’s messy handwriting, consider if that’s a situation worth entering. Unless the messy handwriting inhibits team members from reading important notes, does it really matter if someone has chicken scratch?
Don’t say things that could impact someone else’s productivity or happiness in your organization. So keep in mind that it’s essential for communication also to be timely. If something important is brought to your attention, set aside time to approach the topic within a week—sooner if it’s a critical matter. You don’t want to sit on issues or important information for weeks. When you get around to saying something, it wouldn’t be fresh in your mind or the employee's mind.
Workplace communication must be timely and necessary to be effective. Ensuring this may help you prevent potentially harmful workplace talk, which protects your organization’s culture and reputation.3. Don’t share information with people without direct authority over a situation.
One of the best ways to inhibit workplace gossip is to prevent its spread in the first place. Think about who needs to know things. If there is an issue with an employee, the only people to keep updated may be their manager and whoever is above that manager.
Keeping communication selective can help prevent people with no stake in the conversation from sharing half-informed opinions or ideas with others. It also limits the information to the same people who want to avoid inviting gossip on the topic, too.
Also, protect information about team changes with people in other departments. Unless it directly affects their job, there isn’t much reason for the marketing department to know the troubles occurring behind the scenes on the development team.
Encourage everyone to be mindful of others and your organization. Only some people know the end goals of decisions made by your leadership, so making potentially harmful comments can impact future success. Warn employees that rumors are often untrue and that anything anyone accidentally overhears is never the complete picture.
Some workplace chatting is normal—colleagues discussing their favorite restaurants or sports teams should be freely encouraged to build bonds. It’s important to recognize acceptable and casual interactions since these conversations are what may help you develop a better company culture.
Healthy workplace communications are critical to organizational success. For more information on how to maintain a professional environment, check out our blog on managing tone in emails.
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