There's an easy way to tell whether your office has a gossip problem, said Heather Kephart, CPA: Listen for the whispering.
"There's no good reason to whisper unless you're in a library," said Kephart, director of financial reporting at Koniag Inc., an Alaska Native Corporation headquartered in Kodiak, Alaska. "It creates distrust, it creates questions. You always wonder, 'Who are they talking about?,' never, 'What are they talking about?' "
If it feels like your workplace has become a backdrop for palace intrigue, there are steps you can take to quell the gossip. Identifying why employees are gossiping can help you know which strategy to use.
If they're nervous about changes in the organization:
Be transparent. Nothing can quiet a rumor mill like an open door. T.J. O'Neill, CPA, tax supervisor at Mueller Prost in St. Louis, believes being forthright with employees can head off rumors before they have a chance to grow.
"When a leadership team can answer the questions people are afraid to ask, it squashes a lot of questions people are going to have," O'Neill said. He suggests holding periodic meetings to share as much behind-the-scenes information as possible — everything from revenue projections to staffing decisions — to keep everyone up-to-date.
If they're having interpersonal conflicts:
Keep the culture positive. Letting everyone know who is contributing to good work getting done can curb the backbiting and distrust that Kephart says are the roots of discord among co-workers. She recommends having regular sessions that give everyone on the team a chance to recognize coworkers for their contributions.
"It takes a half hour to go around the room and have everyone express something positive they want the rest of the group to know," Kephart said. "You start to realize, hearing this month after month, that the person you've been gossiping about or don't like actually does a lot of good in the organization."
If they're new to the workplace:
Model behavior. Recent graduates who are just learning how different the workplace is from their college campus sometimes get swept up in gossip.
"Younger, more inexperienced staff get caught up in that because maybe they haven't been in the professional environment that long," O'Neill said. "Work becomes social life, and it's hard to leave that behind and start over in a more professional setting."
Building a one-to-one mentoring program can catch gossip before it turns toxic, especially among employees. O'Neill says having a relationship with a mentor can provide a new employee with a trusted advocate. Building on that trust helps a younger employee see his or her mentor as a first resource for concerns or grievances.
"If a mentor can demonstrate they are the immediate resource for communicating concerns and difficulties to (and the mentor follows through with results), office gossip will seem more and more unproductive and unattractive to the mentee," O'Neill said.
If they're venting:
Make sure their problems are addressed. Sometimes employees gossip because they simply want to vent. Encourage them to come to you with specific, solvable workplace problems. Mike Nash, president of Nash Consulting in Seattle, says that can encourage them to engage in actual problem-solving rather than destructive backbiting.
However, if they're complaining about issues that aren't relevant to work, ask them to keep it out of the office.
They can "talk about the problem with their friend who doesn't work here, with their spouse, with their therapist, with their dog," said Nash. "Process it with someone else."
Coach the listeners
Another way to cut down on gossip is to focus on the employees who are enabling the gossip: the listeners.
"Sometimes we engage in gossip because we don't know how to set good boundaries," Nash said of those listeners. "We feel that, to be a good person, we need to be available for all of these angst-ridden ventings."
All employees should know that simply hitting eject on a negative conversation is an option.
"There is nothing to be gained by engaging in or perpetuating this type of behavior. Period," said Diana Faison, leadership development consultant and partner at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership in Charlotte, N.C. The best solution, she says, is to train listeners to simply stop listening.
To stop gossip cold, "you simply disengage," she said. "If you do not participate, it takes away all the fun."
Matthew Philpott is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.