Recent articles in the “New York Times” by Shayla McKnight, in the “Harvard Business Blogs” by Cheryl Dolan and Faith Oliver, and in “Stumble Upon” have focused on the harm done by workplace “gossip girls,” “mean girls” and on the difficulty in stopping these bullies.  However, some academics have even made a case for the benefits of gossip at work.

Although men also engage in gossip at work, the typical image of harassment and bullying with gossip involves grown up mean girls using the same tactics they perfected in middle and high school.

Gossip is part of a pattern of negativity, verbal abuse, sabotage, rumor mongering, exclusion, back-stabbing, public ridicule, “catfights,” arguments, vendettas, disrespect, cutting out and forming warring cliques, crowds or mobs that wreaks havoc on previously productive teams.  Conflict and stress, and turnover and sick leave increase, while morale and productivity are destroyed.  These tactics lead to hostile workplace and discrimination suits against companies that don’t actively recognize and remove stealthy gossip girls, their supporters and managers who tolerate the bullying.

Although gossip, harassment and bullying by mean girls are scourges at work, they can be stopped.

Of course there are people for whom gossip is a way of life.  They can’t imagine living without talking about other people.  But if you want to maximize productivity of your team or company, you’ll have to stop these people, as well as the hardened climbers who use gossip to gain power and turf, or who simply like inflicting pain on their victims.

The key to stopping these hostile behaviors is team agreements:

  • Ban the practices – have clearly stated company policies and procedures.
  • Publicize the no-gossip policy during interviews and new-employee orientation.
  • Track behavior as part of evaluations that count.
  • Involve the whole team, as well as managers, to hold one another accountable.
  • Remove people who insist on their own destructive behavioral code.

Make the overall tone at work be “We have more important things to talk about than gossip.”

Obviously, the burden falls on owners and leaders.  They set the tone.  If they’re the gossip girls or boys, you won’t be able to change their company.

But owners and leaders can’t do it themselves.  They must involve and enroll all the employees.  They must promote and keep only those who actively support the effort to create better attitudes and behavior.

Sometimes the voices of an outside expert and company lawyers are necessary to guide the process.  But ultimately, leaders and employees must take charge of creating an environment where they can thrive without having to look over their shoulders with the same kind of anxiety and fear they had in middle of high school.

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Resources Cited: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/jobs/15pre.html?_r=1&8dpc and http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/cs/2009/10/how_to_stop_mean_girls_in_the.html

Ben Leichtling, Ph.D. is author of the books and CDs “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” and “Eliminate the High cost of Low Attitudes.” He is available for coaching, consulting and speaking.  To find practical, real-world tactics to stop bullies and bullying at home, school, work and in relationships, see his web site (http://www.BulliesBeGone.com) and blog (http://www.BulliesBeGoneBlog.com).

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