"Hey, did you hear ... "
Gossip--it's something that no company wants within its walls, but it's going to happen. And if you think your employees aren't spreading it, well, I hate to break it to you, but you're wrong.
A little gossip isn't harmful; in fact, a recent study at Stanford even suggests it could be a good thing (as long as it benefits the larger group as a whole). But sometimes, there are bigger rumors that have the potential to cast a sense of distrust throughout the entire organization, where employees might think that something is up and they aren't being informed for a reason.
If you're the leader of your company, you need to acknowledge the gossip and let your employees know what's really going on. The longer you choose to ignore it or wait it out, the more likely it'll spread to other parts of the company--and the more likely it'll get even more inaccurate, just like the old game of telephone.
Here are four ways stop the rumor mill from spinning out of control:
1. Get to the bottom of it.
Before you can do anything to quell the gossip, get your facts straight. This might mean asking your managers or department heads what they've heard. If you've fostered a good relationship with them, where they're comfortable telling you all the good and bad things going on with their teams, then the easier it'll be to pinpoint exactly what's being spread around the halls and to what extent.
2. Address it directly.
Your first reaction might be to just talk to the person who's spreading the rumors. But what about all the folks who heard the rumor and, although they're not actively telling others, think what they've heard is true?
You need to address the entire team, perhaps even the entire company. But instead of making the meeting about the rumors, turn it into an open forum for employees to voice their concerns about anything, related to the gossip or not. Take questions from everyone in advance so you can prepare your answers. Put out a suggestion box so people can submit their questions anonymously. Yes, that's old-fashioned, but you'd be surprised at how honest employees can be when their identity is protected and respected.
3. Be frank.
The type of rumors that can really hurt a company are the ones that make employees think that leadership is hiding something from them. So be honest. If a mistake was made, own up and promise that it won't happen again. If it was simply false information, say so. (But don't point fingers at anyone in front of a group.) If employees are unhappy or confused about certain decisions made by leadership, provide context so they can see the bigger picture and all the things happening behind the scenes that they might not have been aware of. Honesty breeds honesty.
4. Confront repeat offenders.
Inevitably, you'll have an employee who just can't keep his or her mouth shut and is always on the lookout to spread any kind of information, whether good or bad. (I call him "Gary the Gossip.") In this case, you might have to have a one-on-one with Gary and tell him that if he "hears" any rumors, to come to you directly. The idea is to make him feel that you trust him to get the facts straight first before asking or telling his co-workers.
You can't keep your people from talking. But these four tips should help prevent your company from becoming high school all over again.