Magazine article New Zealand Management

Workplace Gossip: It's Not All Bad: Pssst ... Have You Heard the Latest? People Gossip at Work. Susan Hafen Argues That Gossiping Workmates Are Not Always Bad News for Companies

Magazine article New Zealand Management

Workplace Gossip: It's Not All Bad: Pssst ... Have You Heard the Latest? People Gossip at Work. Susan Hafen Argues That Gossiping Workmates Are Not Always Bad News for Companies

Article excerpt

While networks, grapevines and rumours are acknowledged forms of organisational communication, little has been done to understand the role of gossip in the workplace. Perhaps that's because gossip is associated more with women and therefore scholars have ignored it as trivia, but Susan Hafen says it's time gossip got some air time. An associate professor in communication at Weber State University in Utah, Hafen chalked up experience in human resources in the energy and manufacturing industries before she became an academic.

"Gossip needs to be legitimised as an important workplace communication," she told a seminar at Waikato Management School during a recent visit to New Zealand.

Hafen argues that gossip has its place. It can be positive or negative, personal or private, true or false but, she insists, it is not about telling lies. "There is a difference between rumour and gossip," she says. Rumours start when events are uncertain, for example, talk around the building about company lay offs.

"Rumours are usually in the public sphere and associated with men.

"Gossip on the other hand is in the private sphere, it's details about lives. For example, who will be laid off and why." She says gossip has been associated with women because historically women were excluded from public life so their talk was about the private sphere.

Hafen has also been analysing gender differences and how employees use the workplace gossip/information "revolving door" for individual and collective power both positively or negatively and, she says, an ethics of gossip needs to be theorised that takes into account the many organisational functions and interpersonal pleasure that gossip brings.

Hafen went into four organisations in the United States and carried out in-depth interviews and observations. She ensured her companies were diverse--an electrical utility, a manufacturing plant, a worker-owned restaurant and a college (university) department. Her subjects were 17 females and 14 males with ages ranging from their late 20s to early 50s.

She says gossip can be categorised into organisational citizenship behaviours and their sub-sets (OCBs) and workplace deviance behaviours (WDBs). OCB is good gossip--information that contributes to the social capital of an organisation resulting in better organisational flow, while WDBs have a negative effect on the running of an organisation, whether knowing or unwitting.

"Gossip can be as healing as it is destructive. In my study I tried to find out at what point personal gossip became organisational information. What became clear to the narrators themselves as they told gossip stories is the mirror effect it has--what disempowered one person empowered another. What hurt one situation helped another.

"Management becomes the 'revolving door' for transforming gossip to information or information to gossip, depending on how the organisation is best served, by sanctioning or illegitimating stories."

For example, one manager's illicit romantic relationship at work is officially ignored as his own private affair: another manager's relationship becomes HR's confidential information that contributes to his termination. "When a gossip relayer enters HR the gossip is weighed, tested and probed. If found to impact the organisation, the gossip is converted to information and organisational representatives are authorised to 'investigate' the gossip, which is now called information. …

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