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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

I heard it through the grapevine

By Linda White
Special to The Toronto Sun

You're gathered around the water cooler talking about what you did over the weekend, but it's not long before everyone's discussing that rumoured promotion, complaining about the boss or criticizing a co-worker.
Understanding the difference between an office grapevine that carries potentially valuable information and malicious gossip that undermines someone's reputation is key.

As much as you might wish it would go away, office gossip is here to stay. "It's an outlet to express our feelings," says Franz Schmidt, director of YMCA Career Planning and Development in Toronto. "It has a therapeutic value."

Valuable information

But understanding the difference between an office grapevine that carries potentially valuable information and malicious gossip that undermines someone's reputation is key.

"In some ways, an office grapevine can be used as a positive," Schmidt says. "The rumour mill is the quickest way to find something out. It can help you keep your finger on the pulse of what's happening, but you have to make sure it's accurate."

Sharing your complaints can be therapeutic, but it doesn't resolve the cause of those frustrations. "Venting provides some comfort and relief to your anger," Schmidt says. "Is it helpful? I think it's a momentary fix. It gives you a chance to get something off your chest, but it doesn't resolve the cause of your anger ... You may want to talk to someone in (human resources) and do some creative thinking."

Be careful about contributing or listening to gossip about your boss or coworker. Think about how it reflects on your character and how you'd feel if you were the one whose reputation was being undermined.

"If you're uncomfortable with what's being said, your best approach may be to walk away and not participate," Schmidt says. "You can be forthcoming in a positive way, saying something like, 'I'm sure you didn't mean it like that.' It's OK to take a stand. Is it your job to have everyone love you or is it one of fair play?"
  • Use the office grapevine as a source of information, but make sure it's accurate.
  • Find creative solutions to bothersome issues rather than simply venting your frustration.
  • Be careful about contributing or listening to malicious gossip. Take a stand or walk away.
  • Protect yourself from becoming the victim of office gossip. Praise the efforts of others and maintain confidences.
  • Reduce the damaging impact of rumours by keeping employees informed about changes, promotions, etc.

  • 'Toxic thing'

    Again, consider approaching your human resources department. "If it's a toxic thing, you should do something about it," Schmidt says. "After all, you don't want to work in a place where people feel shamed, ridiculed or bullied. Words can be more wicked than fists."

    Worried about becoming the victim of gossip and how it may affect your future? "Volunteer to take part in projects so you become known," says Barbara Simmons, a counsellor and career coach at George Brown College in Toronto.

    "Be part of the solution, part of a team effort. Acknowledge other people's ideas. Give credit where credit is due. People are less likely to gossip about people they like."

    Be careful about what you divulge. "Maintain confidences," Simmons says. "That tells others they can trust you and it also models good behaviour. Don't go into great depth about your problems or personal life with coworkers. That's crossing the line."

    Consider what your actions tell others. "Don't present behaviour that can be mimicked," Simmons says. "For example, don't close your office door when you're talking to someone. Don't huddle with a few coworkers at lunch. That kind of behaviour makes others wonder what you're talking about."

    Proactive role

    Because office gossip undermines productivity and morale, management must take a proactive role in lessening its impact, especially in times of change. "In the absence of information, people will make things up," says Barbara Collins, vice-president of business development at Drake Beam Morin (DBM) in Toronto.

    "Companies that over-communicate fare the best," she believes. "Often, companies don't communicate unless they have something to say, but employees may be waiting for the other shoe to drop."

    It's okay to tell employees there's nothing to report just yet but that information will be shared as it becomes available. Once it is available, it should be shared through any of a combination of ways, including town hall-type meetings, e-mails, transition websites and newsletters.

    "Be honest. Don't make things up," Simmons says. "Managers should be on the same page. If the message isn't consistent, the rumour mill will start up."

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