COMMUNICATION Workplace Gossip – It’s not all bad

While networks, grapevines and rumours are acknowledged forms of organisational communication, little has been done to understand the role of gossip in the workplace. Perhaps that’s because gossip is associated more with women and therefore scholars have ignored it as trivia, but Susan Hafen says it’s time gossip got some air time. An associate professor in communication at Weber State University in Utah, Hafen chalked up experience in human resources in the energy and manufacturing industries before she became an academic.
“Gossip needs to be legitimised as an important workplace communication,” she told seminar at Waikato Management School during recent visit to New Zealand.
Hafen argues that gossip has its place. It can be positive or negative, personal or private, true or false but, she insists, it is not about telling lies. “There is difference between rumour and gossip,” she says. Rumours start when events are uncertain, for example, talk around the building about company lay offs.
“Rumours are usually in the public sphere and associated with men.
“Gossip on the other hand is in the private sphere, it’s details about lives. For example, who will be laid off and why.” She says gossip has been associated with women because historically women were excluded from public life so their talk was about the private sphere.
Hafen has also been analysing gender differences and how employees use the workplace gossip/information “revolving door” for individual and collective power both positively or negatively and, she says, an ethics of gossip needs to be theorised that takes into account the many organisational functions and interpersonal pleasure that gossip brings.
Hafen went into four organisations in the United States and carried out indepth interviews and observations. She ensured her companies were diverse – an electrical utility, manufacturing plant, worker-owned restaurant and college (university) department. Her subjects were 17 females and 14 males with ages ranging from their late 20s to early 50s.
She says gossip can be categorised into organisational citizenship behaviours and their sub-sets (OCBs) and workplace deviance behaviours (WDBs). OCB is good gossip – information that contributes to the social capital of an organisation resulting in better organisational flow, while WDBs have negative effect on the running of an organisation, whether knowing or unwitting.
“Gossip can be as healing as it is destructive. In my study I tried to find out at what point personal gossip became organisational information. What became clear to the narrators themselves as they told gossip stories is the mirror effect it has – what disempowered one person empowered another. What hurt one situation helped another.
“Management becomes the ‘revolving door’ for transforming gossip to information or information to gossip, depending on how the organisation is best served, by sanctioning or illegitimating stories.”
For example, one manager’s illicit romantic relationship at work is officially ignored as his own private affair: another manager’s relationship becomes HR’s confidential information that contributes to his termination. “When gossip relayer enters HR the gossip is weighed, tested and probed. If found to impact the organisation, the gossip is converted to information and organisational representatives are authorised to ‘investigate’ the gossip, which is now called information.”
If the company decides to ignore the information, the relayer and receiver slip out the ‘backdoor’, gossip in hand. Gossip-to-information is legitimised as an OCB. The other way round – information becoming gossip and proving harmful to the organisation – is WDB. “The revolving door of gossip-information can go round and round,” says Hafen.
Hafen found that making people more aware of gossip and its impacts could change an organisation’s view of it. Management in one of her company studies attended seminar that touched on it.
“The organisation seemed laced with trepidation and fear and that fear reined in gossip. Avoiding WDBs was emphasised more than implementing OCBs. Euphemisms were used rather than direct references to sex and romance. Few could remember or would admit to any gossip mistakes and gossip topics were most likely to be personnel-based.”
On the other hand, at the manufacturing plant gossip was alive and well. Humorous gossip was part of the plant camaraderie – sex, disputes, mischief and admissions of “kissing the hinie” of boss. And at the restaurant one employee suggested they should have “gossip workshops” not to stop gossip but to gossip “well and productively” – way for new employees to catch up with past gossip that acts as organisational memory.
Gender difference in the way men and women tell stories is mirrored in their gossip. In their storytelling, women include social power and interdependence and include more detail about people and reported conversation. Men’s stories recreate competitive, individual win-lose contests with more detail about places and objects. It’s similar with their gossip. Men use gossip to brag, joke and compete – often in the guise of talk about undue privileges and ethics violations.
Women use gossip to analyse social power and to build relationships. They are far more focused on feelings than men and will tell stories of how gossip, even their own, hurt others at work. In Hafen’s survey of 108 undergraduate students in the United States, men never included those details in their stories.
Men’s and women’s gossip is important in the workplace, says Hafen, because it involves detailed knowledge of not just what is happening, but who is doing what, with whom, how and why. “Skilful gossiping is key to surviving, even thriving, in workplace politics – knowing what questions to ask whom, and how to pass on stories that will help yourself and others.”
She says that while compassion and gossip aren’t often paired, compassionate gossiping is good description for stories that circulate knowledge and sympathy about co-workers’ troubles. “The question is not whether to gossip, but how to do so skilfully and ethically, and how to avoid the label of ‘gossip’ which is so much more likely to stick to women than to men.”
Gossip, says Hafen, is like the blood of an organisation. “If gossiping can feel like spilling blood, it is also nourishment: power. Who decides what is information and what is gossip is not simply gender issue, it’s an issue of power that affects all organisational groups.”
Hafen isn’t stopping her research there. She wants to focus on the revolving door theory and find out to what extent it is tied to OCBs and WDBs. And she’d also like to study the structure of gossip more, how it shapes or constrains organisational culture.

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