We all (well, 97 percent of us) know that making up rumors about someone’s sex life is not okay. But even still, 39 percent of employees have seen it happen—and six percent say they’ve participated, too.

People don’t just casually overhear inappropriate conversations—they tend to chime in. An older study suggests that 80 percent of what we talk about is in fact, gossip.

But gossip isn’t all bad. Sure, the gossip definition we’re used to involves exposing people’s private lives without offering any real value. While that type of gossip will hurt your small business, there’s also a kind that actually has positive effects.

Here are a couple ways to stop the bad kind of gossip from making a mess at your office—while letting the good kind flow.

Why is bad gossip bad for business?

Gossip can seem like just a regular part of life. But when you add sex to the mix, like the NPR poll above suggests, it can balloon from a tiny annoyance into a situation where your business can be seriously liable.

Here’s why: If your employee feels like they’re in a hostile work environment, they have grounds to take action and report the situation to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Then, you have to deal with that complaint.

Not to mention, your employees will feel pretty icky if they have to go to work and get bombarded with that kind of behavior. That doesn’t make anyone feel good. So always try to get to the bottom of the behavior—and stop it—right when you hear about it.

It gets a little tricky when the National Labor Relations Act comes into play. Your employees are allowed to talk about their employment conditions, like what they earn and the space they work in, so you can’t use a gossip policy to suppress that kind of talk. In legalese, this is called “protected concerted activity.” However, your team can’t gossip in a way that makes someone else feel hurt or threatened. The line is pretty clear when that happens.

The key to stopping the bad kind of work gossip.

It’s easy for many business owners to let gossip slide because it can seem like there are more pressing parts of running a company. But if you do these three things, you’ll find it can end pretty quickly.

1. Don’t participate.

First, familiarize yourself with what actually crosses the line:

  • Talking about someone’s personal life in a hurtful way.
  • Making a statement that could jeopardize someone’s job.
  • Undermining someone’s credibility.
  • And other situations that are purely malicious in their intent.

If you encounter any of these situations, here are some phrases you can use to stop your gossiper in their tracks:

  • “Why are you telling me this?” → (This requires the person to validate why what they’re saying matters.)
  • “Does this affect your ability to do work?”→ (If it doesn’t, they don’t have to tell you or anyone else.)
  • “I don’t need to know this.” → (Be upfront that you’re not going to give them the reaction they want.)
  • “I see. I respect everyone here and I hope that you will do the same.” → (Be explicit about what you want your office environment to feel like.)

And if the behavior continues, make a direct statement that you won’t tolerate it at your workplace. Say something like:

  • “This is inappropriate and harmful to others. Please stop talking about this right now.”

A business owner that doesn’t want to hear about what an employee did over the weekend makes tattling quite boring. As long as whatever the person was doing didn’t make the nightly news or involve them wearing a company t-shirt, put an end to it and don’t participate.

2. Give employees a chance to voice their concerns.

Without the proper channels, gossip can easily fester. So set up safe, accessible spaces where employees can share honest feedback. You can do that by:

  • Conducting stay interviews, which are the opposite of exit interviews. Get started with this game plan from Student Loan Hero.
  • Running an anonymous employee survey through a service like Gusto or with a simple Typeform or Google Form.
  • Setting up a Slack channel where anyone can jump in and add their take on a specific issue.
  • Putting up a whiteboard in your breakroom and allowing anyone to collect feedback from the team.
  • Carving out a set time for Q&A during all-hands meetings.

These outlets give people a place to voice their concerns in a way that will actually enact change at your business.

3. Spread the good kind of gossip.

“When you say ‘gossip,’ most people immediately have a negative interpretation,” says Eric Gilbert, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech. “But it’s actually a very important form of communication. Even tiny bits of information, like ‘Eric said he’d be late for this meeting,’ add up.”

That’s because informative gossip helps people recognize patterns and make decisions. In Gilbert’s example, knowing that someone is running late can help save time. In fact, when the goal is to inform or connect with someone else—without the cruel part—it actually strengthens your team dynamics.

Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar says gossip allows us to establish social standing and create friendships. These things can be essential for making your team feel like a team, or what psychologists call “group cohesion.” When your employees share a positive experience together, like winning a big client, it leads to them becoming stronger teammates.

So say good things behind your team’s backs.

For example, if your restaurant host dealt with a difficult customer in a tactful way, explain what was so remarkable at your next company meeting. That’s the kind of “gossip” that doesn’t hurt people and actually promotes the positive vibes you want at your business.

Whatever you do, don’t make decisions based on things you hear through the grapevine. If bad gossip takes ahold of your office, conduct an investigation and get to the bottom of it. Gossip doesn’t have to break your team down—harness the good part and use it to build your team back up.

Suzanne Lucas Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate HR where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. Now she writes and speaks about human resources, business, and how to make your job and company the best it possibly can be.
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