It often seems that my employees get information through the rumor mill before I am ready for disclosure. What can I do to prevent this?

Name withheld

Good news travels fast, bad news travels faster, and embarrassing news travels at warp speed. So long as people have mouths to speak and fingers to type they will gossip. (Employees without mouths or fingers gossip less but pose different problems.)

That said, office rumors can sap morale (do you think there will be layoffs?) and productivity (let's ask everyone if they think there will be layoffs). And, of course, if everyone is talking except management, employees assume the worst. So instead of trying to stop the conversation, join it, advises Chip Heath, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. Create a "Heard on the Street" section on your intranet where employees can ask about rumors. Respond with the dope, as straight as possible. And keep your company's opinion leaders in the loop. That way, when they spread the word, it's more likely to be your word. When Adrienne Beam's Dallas marketing agency, Insight Interactive, had financial problems in 2001, Beam held a staff meeting to counter grim rumblings. Even now, with business booming, she devotes a portion of weekly meetings to news and staff concerns.

Beam also knows that CEOs are like Alan Greenspan: People watch them continuously for signals. So she takes care not to appear secretive. If, for example, she spends all morning in a closed-door meeting, she'll casually mention its outcome during lunch. And Beam never chastises employees for gossiping. "I'd love everybody to be blindly loyal and supportive," she says, "but that's not realistic."

PO Box Blues

I am starting a business and don't want to use my home address on mailers and business cards. A local mail service will rent me a private mailbox with the condition that I stipulate PMB in the address. This conjures images of a one-man shop run out of a closet. I don't want to be undone by a PO box.

Jason Beck, Columbia, Tenn.

Using a PO box is a little like buying your suits in the boy's department: a public confession that you are stature-ally challenged. In the good old days, entrepreneurs could disguise their boxes behind words like suite or department. But those words also disguised a lot of subkosher activity, and so in 1999 the U.S. Postal Service ended that practice to combat fraud.

Fortunately, the proposal to use PMB before the box number drew such heavy criticism from small businesses that the USPS eventually agreed to accept a more innocuous number sign, as well. And if "10 Main Street, #236" doesn't exactly scream Fortune 500, it doesn't conjure images of the garage, either.

Sales Pros Wanted

I am having a hard time finding salespeople who really know how to execute the basics of sales and business development. We test, reference-check, and interview intensely, but we are never quite sure if the hire will be successful. How can I identify productive salespeople?

Joseph M. Rimsky, Trasys, Cincinnati

Salespeople are in the business of selling themselves, so it's not surprising you've made some bad buys. When shopping for talent, start with a detailed set of nonnegotiable criteria, advises Joe Miller, CEO of SalesKingdom, a recruiting firm in Charlotte, N.C. Do you need an aggressive lead generator? A savvy relationship builder? One who would mesh well with your existing team? Don't expect too much from online job boards and classified ads. Instead, play the sales game yourself and ask customers, vendors, and employees for leads, suggests Miller. Headhunters deliver, but they charge up to 25% of the hunted head's salary.

Interviews can be very informative because they show how the prospect makes a case, one-on-one. Does he keep interrupting you? Imagine him acting that way with a customer. If he seems content to sit at a desk and take orders all day, take a pass. "Those kind of people are worthless," says Miller. And, as Fleetwood Mac so sagely advises, don't stop thinking about tomorrow. You will need new blood again, so keep the pipeline filled with promising candidates.

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