Back in March 2010, an article (registration may be required for access) in Workplace.com highlighted a study in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography regarding workplace gossip. It reviewed how rumors among employees about a company can dilute authority, can poison workplace congeniality and contribute to staff turnover, all of which can cause harm an organization without ever becoming public (external to the organization). The study is focused on paid employees, but, of course, its findings are important to nonprofits and volunteers as well. The study’s author, sociologist Tim Hallett, calls such gossip “reputational warfare,” and says that once a bad reputation has been solidified, justified or not, it usually sticks — often with negative consequences for the entire organization.
Employees and volunteers will always talk internally about how things are going at an organization, what they think the future holds, what obstacles they see facing the country, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a misunderstanding, a small fear, an unanswered question or an observation by someone uninformed about a situation can turn conversations into negative gossip, layout the foundation for mistrust, conflict, and negative public relations.
Don’t try to stop conversations about the internal workings of an organization – those conversations can be important informal training for new staff and help you discover and address issues before they become full-blown problems. But do work to make sure conversations by staff – employees, consultants and volunteers – are fact-based and within the bounds of your confidentiality policies, and work continually to create a culture where employees and volunteers share their fears, questions and suppositions early with supervisors, without fear of retribution for merely expressing a fear or asking a question.
Gossip tends to crop up when there are voids in communication. Therefore, address fears, questions and suppositions quickly and regularly. Filling the void with information — about possible office relocation, promotions, layoffs, firings, conflicts with funders or partners, budget shortfalls, etc. If a situation must be kept confidential and can’t be shared with employees, consultants and/or volunteers — for instance, the reasons why a staff person was fired — then explain why such information is kept confidential, in such a way that employees realize that you will honor their personnel issues, positive or negative, in a confidential manner as well. If the information could be damaging to the organization if released too early, then say so, explicitly. If you should have released the information sooner internally, apologize to staff and talk about what you will be doing to ensure that information is not withheld again — or ask them how they would have liked the situation to have been handled.
If you don’t want to commit anything or everything to writing, such as in a company-wide memo, then meet individually with staff and volunteers, have the executive director or a senior manager address individual department meetings, and have all-staff meetings. Give employees multiple opportunities to ask questions and voice concerns about rumors that they have heard.
But how do you know gossip is happening? By having trusting relationships across the organization – including across an organization’s hierarchy. That comes from regular conversations, formal and informal, and by showing explicitly how feedback from staff is heard, how suggestions from volunteers does influence the organization, etc. And building trust would take several more blogs to explore…
In short, you must create a culture of faith and trust among your paid staff and volunteers in each other and in the organizational leadership in order to prevent damaging gossip. It’s much easier to create and sustain such a culture than it is to try to overcome “reputational warfare.”