OGDEN, Utah – So check this out. According to an associate communication professor at Weber State University, some forms of gossip in the workplace might not be such a bad thing, especially if organizations can tap into the positive components of gossip as a tool to create organizational heroes or to circulate cautionary tales about the consequences of breaking rules.
That’s the conclusion of Susan Hafen, who has researched the subject of workplace gossip and found it can have a beneficial impact. Her study also examined differences in gossip based on gender.
Hafen has presented her findings at a conference in New Zealand this summer, and her work will be published in a forthcoming corporate communication textbook.
“The question is not whether to gossip or how to eliminate it, but how to foster an ethical workplace environment that promotes positive forms of gossip by male and female employees,” Hafen said.
Hafen places gossip into two categories: “organizational citizenship behaviors” (OCB), which are generally beneficial because they foster positive views of the organization and “workplace deviance behaviors” (WDB), which typically hurt reputations and/or hinder the organization’s effectiveness. Hafen said it would be an oversimplification to characterize these as “good” and “bad” forms of gossip. Whether gossip is positive or negative depends on several factors, including the context, the motive of the person spreading the gossip, and the ramifications or outcome of the gossip.
While gossip is historically viewed as a women’s medium, both genders gossip in the workplace. For her study, Hafen had 108 undergraduate students [50 males (46 percent); 58 females (54 percent)] identify how frequently they used particular types of gossip and asked them to retell a gossip story that exemplified the kind of gossip they heard in the workplace.
According to Hafen’s study, the key differences between the genders involved the subjects of gossip and the tone or manner in which the information was relayed. Women tended to gossip more negatively about the boss, while men focused on coworkers who had more privileges than they had. Male storytelling emphasized competition, personal skill and justice, and often used humor. Women focused more on details about people, social power, feelings and getting to know colleagues, using stories with more detail and slightly more negative or neutral terms than men.
“Men’s use of gossip for humorous social exchange and as a way to compare themselves to others may benefit both themselves and the organizations,” Hafen said. “Women’s use of gossip as a way to learn what others might need and help them out is an important, indirect way of getting information that might benefit the organization, gossipers and gossipee.”
Despite the potential for positive outcomes, gossip can also be destructive to organizations and employees when it is used purposely to destroy reputations or generates animosity that damages relationships and disrupts work.
Hafen likens the skillful gossiper to a skillful politician. Like politics, gossip is a key to surviving, even thriving, knowing what questions to ask whom and how to pass on stories that will help the gossiper and others. And as in the political arena, ethical behavior is paramount.
So how do organizations use this information to promote helpful gossip and downplay or eliminate destructive gossip in the workplace? Hafen admits that’s an area for future research, but suggests that some businesses foster positive gossip as internal public relations, spreading upbeat stories about top managers and high performing employees.
She suggests human resource departments often function as a gossip-information revolving door, framing information as gossip or gossip as information, depending on the situation and the employees involved. In short, management uses gossip, just as employees do, to promote favorable images and to have an “ear to the ground.” When gossip turns negative, the question is not "how to eliminate it?" but "what is it telling us?"
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