Historically, gossip and rumors in the workplace have been vigorously discouraged principally because of their harmful effects on employees and the distractions they cause. The conduit for such idle and mischievous banter was confined largely to hallway whispers and water cooler conversation. People were frequently maligned and hurt and if gossip and rumors were rampant it reflected more on the employee culture than on the organizational as a whole. Along with the benefits of instant and expansive communication that is the hallmark of our technological era is the potential for gossip and rumors to be significantly more injurious. Think common cold in the school yard versus dangerous virus in a high density global community. Consider the contemporary terminology “going viral”.
Every employee in your workforce has the capacity, if relying more on misguided instinct than sound judgment, to become a transmitter of misinformation. Nearly all of us are now equipped with belt-anchored communications centers, armed with voice transmission, instant messaging and email capabilities. Using Twitter, Facebook and an arsenal of social media options, the modern office has become a viral Petri dish.
What this means for contemporary organizations, private or public, is that formal and informal leadership must stress responsible communication. What once may have constituted idle gossip, pesky rumors or disinformation easily corrected or subject to short shelf life and limited damage now is far more destructive. Targets of malicious gossip can be emotionally crippled in a “flash”, leading to psychological disability or even workplace violence. Misinformation about organizational policies, actions and motives can spread with the speed and destructive force of a wildfire. In the private sector the result can be plummeting stock values, and in the public sector a loss of public confidence in government’s ability to maintain order and provide essential services. In all cases the effects are destabilizing and not always easy to recover from.
Businesses and government agencies must give communications and information management the same importance and attention that they place on their security and financial systems. Workplace posters discouraging gossip and rumors may no longer be enough. Training, orientations and staff discussions that address the profound adverse impacts of perpetuating office myths and willingly spreading undocumented and unverified information should be a priority. Indifference should be replaced with concern and discipline when employees are discovered communicating in an irresponsible or intentionally harmful manner. An organization’s integrity, respect and viability today depend as much on internal communications as on marketing or external communications. While it once may have been sufficient to have a “Public Information Officer” it is now necessary to have a “Director of Communications” who can not only write press releases but also create policies and practices that promote responsible communications across the organization. Trust is the foundation of leadership, management, product sales or service delivery, and honest, factual and reliable communication is the basis of all trust.