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Gossip confidential

Wagging tongues at work can be a disincentive to team-building

office gossipForget an apple a day. Psychologists at University of California, Berkeley, have discovered an unlikely link between good health and good, old-fashioned gossip.

But please don’t take this as an invitation to bad-mouth the boss or cut down a colleague behind his or her back.

The study, published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, wasn’t referring to the kind of catty chatter or malicious rumour-mongering that can so quickly poison a workplace. Rather, the focus was on what co-author Robb Willer called “pro-social gossip.”

Gossip as a warning to others

This very particular form of gossip “has the function of warning others about untrustworthy or dishonest people,” Willer said in a media release issued by the university. In one experiment, study participants were exposed to cheating during a game. Overwhelmingly, those who witnessed the bad behaviour experienced higher heart rates and feelings of frustration.

“‘Pro-social’ gossip has the function of warning others about untrustworthy or dishonest people”

—Robb Willer

Heart rates went down and personal satisfaction up, however, when the same players were able to pass on a “gossip note” alerting others to a cheater in the midst. The desire to call out a cheater remained strong even when players were told it would cost them money to do so, the study found.

At the same time, the threat of becoming the subject of gossip themselves was enough to encourage even the most competitive players to act more generously towards each other.

Maintaining social order or simply bad manners?

The results have researchers suggesting that gossip may serve a critical evolutionary purpose. “Gossip gets a bad rap, but we’re finding evidence that it plays a critical role in the maintenance of social order,” said Willer.

Not everyone agrees. Carey McBeth, a Vancouver-based business etiquette instructor, believes engaging in any kind of gossip – good, bad or otherwise – is simply bad manners. “Society loves gossip,” McBeth says. But, she adds, “I don’t know how talking behind someone’s back can be positive.”

Indeed, the practice is deemed so destructive to office harmony, that many Canadian firms now have strict policy in place geared to crush the grapevine before it grows. At Telus, which employs about 34,000 people nation-wide, office gossipers can find themselves the subject of counselling, sensitivity training and even face termination, depending on the severity of the case.

“We want to have an environment where everyone can come to work every day and feel respected; that their input is valued,” says Richard Milton, human resources manager in charge of labour relations for the telecommunications giant.

Milton said the majority of incidents can, and are, dealt with informally, with employees encouraged to approach the source of the gossip directly. It’s not about being confrontational. Instead, it’s an opportunity to clear up possible miscommunication and give the person who’s been hurt by negative talk a chance to explain how it’s made him feel.

“No one can say, ‘No, you do not feel that way’,” Milton says of the technique.

Respectful workplace policies

Those who aren’t comfortable dealing with the situation personally can ask for help from managers, who all have undergone mandatory training in accordance with the company’s “respectful workplace” policy. Meanwhile, more serious complaints can trigger mediation or more formal conflict-resolution processes. According to Milton, the policy has served to strengthen employee retention rates and overall engagement scores since it was officially put in place Canada-wide in 2004.

It’s important for employees to have the ability to address an uncomfortable situation and know there won’t be retaliation. “It’s become part of our culture now,” Milton says.

McBeth recommends adopting a similar head-on approach even in the absence of protective policy. “When you address something to a gossip, they will actually be stopped in their tracks. Office gossips don’t like to be confronted because they are usually never confronted,” she says.

She believes it’s equally important for employees to know how to gracefully bow out of an office conversation when idle talk arises. She advocates taking the high road: When someone brings up something negative about a company or individual, counter it by acknowledging a job well done or a noteworthy accomplishment. “You’ll look like a team player,” McBeth says.

If all else fails, tell the bad seed you’re on a tight deadline and immediately return to work.

“You don’t ever want to be associated with gossip. Your personal reputation is going to be in jeopardy,” she says. ◊