I listened to an interesting Freakonomics podcast about gossip (http://www.wnyc.org/story/everybody-gossips-thats-good-thing/ )' According to the podcast, often one person's gossip is another person's information. Much of this, of course, depends on one's point of view. Companies don't want gossip that's distracting to productivity, but at the same time they need to identify blockages to productivity, and maybe even wrongdoing. As the saying goes, "Where there's smoke, there's fire."

Speaking of sayings, one of my favorites is "light is the best disinfectant." Another metaphor I refer to is "problems are better solved when they're on top of the table than when they remain underneath." So, how can we put gossip that's informational on the top of the table, where it's in the light, and ignore gossip that's nonproductive?

There are three basic ways to get at informational gossip:

  1. Be a good listener. If you show you care, then your employees will be more likely to share.
  2. Have one-on-one conversations that give employees the emotional space to express themselves. One of my favorite questions is "does anything feel unfair to you about your work experience?" Group conversations (focus groups) work, too. Just make sure to have them in an environment that feels safe.
  3. Survey employees. I recommend the Employee Compliance Survey that HRThatWorks created because it lets you know if there's any smoke or fire in the environment. When it comes to surveys in general, those that are anonymous or that have "1 to 5" responses don't provide much useful information. Instead, ask what's going well and what could go better. (PS: If you want this form, email me [email protected])

Here are three ways to prevent nonproductive gossip:

  1. Let the workforce know that this stuff wastes time. Whether the gossip is online or face-to-face, limit it to rest and meal periods
  2. Keep people busy. When employees have a sense of urgency, there's little time for gossip
  3. Give them something positive to focus on: Positive gossip. Positive drama.

Gossip will never go away – but the energy behind it can and should be channeled into more productive pursuits.

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