Change management: a manager’s guide to dealing with office gossip

Gossip at work
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It seems to be human nature to tell ourselves stories to explain the things that happen in our lives, but what happens when those stories start to affect the way employees feel at work? Here are some practical tips for managers on handling office gossip. 

Imagine that there’s a restructure at your company, and that this is the information you have collected:

  • Over the past year or so, some line managers have encouraged their direct reports to get training
  • In that same period, some have said it’s not necessary
  • When the redundancy situation crops up, it turns out that one of the selection criteria is how much training you’ve had.

Given that information, what story would you, as an employee, put together?

This is a real-life example from a group of employees I trained recently. They told me this story:

“Well, it takes a while to plan for redundancy; they knew about it a while before they told us. So, they decided who they wanted to get rid of, and told the managers who to encourage to get training, so when the selection criteria for redundancy were announced, they had already targeted the people they wanted to get rid of.”

The thing about these stories is that they are credible – perhaps not probable, but definitely believable.

Very simply, where there is a vacuum of information, people will fill it with their own stories. This storytelling sometimes takes the shape of gossip and rumours; they might be reflecting people’s fears and concerns. It’s a natural reaction to a lack of information.

Listening to gossip

The good thing about these stories for managers is that they clearly signpost the fact that information is missing or highlight a deeper underlying problem. Additionally, one of the most important things managers can do is to listen to their employees.

I actually ask people to listen to and collect rumours and gossip, fears and concerns, and I ask them to then identify in detail what the individual issues are.

So, for example, one concern that is definitely not strategic but that comes up very often as an issue for staff is the lack of parking.

When this does come up, I ask employees to identify as closely as they can the number of people who find the lack of parking upsetting and then to analyse why.

Very simply, where there is a vacuum of information, people will fill it with their own stories.

Over and over, it turns out that it is parents – and especially single parents – who are impacted by the lack of parking, for the very simple reason that they cannot turn up early to get that space like other people can, because they have to take care of dropping off their kids.

This very quickly can be seen as unfair at best, discriminatory at worst.

Digging deeper

Once we’ve gotten to this point, it becomes easier to identify the strategic questions that staff can ask of management: what is their policy on discrimination? Have they considered flex-time as an option, and if so, what might that look like?

Not only are these strategic questions – they relate to how well the business is being run, but they are questions that everyone will want to know the answers to.

One of the most important things managers can do is to listen to their employees.

So, the thing to do is not to ignore or push back when people come to their managers with fears and concerns, rumours and gossip, but to ask them to dig deeper. It’s in digging deeper that the strategic considerations can be identified.

Here are the steps:

  1. Write down all the rumours, gossip, fears and concerns
  2. Identify which employees feel they are negatively impacted
  3. Analyse why they might be impacted
  4. Dig deep: what are the real issues?
  5. Identify the strategic considerations that address those individual issues

What credible workplace rumours have you heard that demonstrate the vacuum of information? Share your experiences in the comment box below. 

Interested in finding out more? Read Gossip in your workplace probably does you more good than harm.

About Jasmine Gartner

Image of Jasmine Gartner

Jasmine has lived in London since 2008, and has worked extensively all around the UK, speaking about and developing, designing and delivering training on employee engagement, information & consultation, cross cultural awareness, unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion. She is the author of Employee Engagement: a little book of Big Ideas.


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30th Jan 2016 13:50

Great advice Jasmine. I've come across this a lot when I've implemented change in organisations. Listening to people's concerns, rather than dismissing them as nonsense, is so important. It also helps build trust and makes it easier to avoid matters escalating. No matter how hard you try, I don't think you can ever communicate everything people need to know if you're only on 'send' and not 'receive'.

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By donr1
to janeginnever
02nd Feb 2016 07:11

All good advice, but I have one consideration that I believe needs to be revised, and that is using words like "fear" etc as in the article. I have found over my near 30 years as an Industrial Relations Advocate that the use of such terms at this time causes people to feel they should be fearful. Simply asking for their responses to the proposals will retain a more positive feeling and is more likely to elicit a worthwhile option that management can at the very least acknowledge, which makes folk feel they are being listened to.

The first time I observed this was where a so-called redundancy counsellor was addressing a group of potentially redundant folk, and told them they should be fearful of losing their jobs and the Company was to blame. As it turned out the Company had little option other than downsizing as they had just lost a government contract which made up 35% of their business. Not everyone was going to be laid off, but it made everyone fearful they were going to be without a job.

Luckily we were able to organize another meeting the next day where it was AGAIN explained the reason for downsizing; that not everyone was in the firing line so-to-speak, and as a result 3 very useful options came up that resulted in the number of job losses being reduced from near 50 to 28.

Cheers. DonR.

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to donr1
05th Feb 2016 16:54

Hi Don, oh my goodness, I certainly don't mean that anyone on the management side should be telling others how to feel (nobody should ever tell others how or what to feel!) - rather, they should be providing facts and information.

So, therefore, clearly, I would agree with you about the counsellor's language - it's inappropriate to tell others what they should feel.

However, that doesn't mean that individual employees aren't fearful or change or don't have concerns about it. In the many years that I've been working with people - including through redundancy - employees *do* have fears and concerns - the two biggest are: "is this fair?" and "will you listen to me?" Management and HR should listen to those fears and concerns; and then provide the facts and information people need to understand change.

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to janeginnever
05th Feb 2016 16:45

Hi Jane, yes, I absolutely agree - also, those concerns are almost always valid, and a great tool for seeing where communication has broken down; so it'd be a real shame to dismiss them. Thanks for your comment.

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30th Nov 2018 06:00

You can't stop people from talking about what they want to. It may not be nice to hear people whispering around the office, but it's what people do. As long as it's not slanderous and it doesn't hurt anybody, I don't see why people can't talk about what they want to though. As a manager of my own storage facility, I need to focus on the business and not about trivial things, as long as it doesn't start affect anybody mentally and emotionally.

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