Office gossip, though rarely talked about or researched, has taken on new dimensions in this high-tech age, becoming a dynamic force that can build camaraderie but can also destroy work relationships or careers.
The proliferation of instant messaging, Internet blogs and e-mail means rumors in the workplace spread faster and farther, and can do more lasting damage.
Jon Bender, a managing partner at PrincetonOne, an executive search firm, says he once received an e-mail about himself that had obviously been intended for someone else.
"I went to the person and said, 'You're upset, let's talk about it, but it's not appropriate in an e-mail,' " Bender says. "Office gossip has always been dangerous, but now with technology, it's also instantaneous. … Once you hit send, you're done."
Nearly two-thirds of employees say that people in their workplace gossip about company news, according to an August study by Steelcase, a Grand Rapids, Mich., provider of office furniture and equipment. Twenty-eight percent of employees who work in offices without a consistent method of communicating news (such as staff meetings) say gossip is their first source for information.
Today's water-cooler conversations are more likely to take place in the office break room (36%), at a co-worker's desk, workstation or office (33%), or through e-mail or instant messaging (10%). Just 1% of employees say they head to the water cooler to learn what's really going on.
Gossip generally takes two forms, either rumors about company changes, such as mergers, layoffs, managerial promotions or staffing changes, and personal gossip about specific employees: who is doing well, having an affair or grappling with personal problems. Because people spend more of their waking hours today at work than with their families, offices are rife with gossip — and both kinds of rumormongering can be detrimental to the workplace.
It can even cost employees their jobs. Four employees of the town of Hooksett, N.H., were fired in April for discussing rumors about an alleged relationship between two town employees. The national media attention generated by the firings thrust the issue of office gossip to center stage.
The fired employees have retained a lawyer and claim the town council has no authority to hire or fire. A town petition with hundreds of signatures was also gathered in support of the four fired workers.
Officials with the town of Hooksett did not return calls seeking comment.
Lawyers say they're fielding new questions from corporate clients on what rights employers have to limit or discipline employees for work-related gossip.
"I've even seen rules about gossiping now in company handbooks," says Bill Nolan, an employer lawyer at Squire Sanders & Dempsey in Columbus, Ohio.
But gossip can be hard to ban, because employees can't legally be barred from discussing employment-related matters. "So it can become a tricky issue for employers," he says.
A tool for management
Gossip can be an invaluable tool for managers, who may be able to keep a better pulse on what's happening in the workplace by relying on information from employees who are known for spreading and knowing office gossip. Managers may mine these office gossipers for information about morale, turnover or productivity problems afflicting employees.