As workplace problems go, we can all agree that rumors are one of the most difficult for management to address. Seldom do we know who started the rumor, and seldom do we know who has already heard it. In many cases, we cannot even be sure if the rumor is true, false, or somewhere in between. Allow me to suggest some basic "rules of engagement" for managers when addressing a rumor problem in the workplace.
Stay connected. Do not disconnect yourself from the communication that is going on among employees. If management doesn't hear about the rumors, they will not be able to address them. Make sure some, but preferably all, of your subordinates feel comfortable coming to you with a rumor to check its veracity. In that way, you can send accurate information back out to those who are discussing an issue. I call this process "inviting yourself to the discussion." Inviting yourself to the discussion does not imply that managers should be out there listening to and spreading rumors themselves. However, it does mean that a manager should be respected enough that conversation doesn't stop when he or she enters the room. When a manager is accessible enough to be part of the discussion, misinformation can be corrected before it causes major problems. Managers who are inaccessible or, worse yet, intimidating are hurting their organizations by their behavior, and will not be very effective problem-solvers.
If you are in the Human Resources Department, it is also important that you are connected to the "rumor mill." Remember that the number one priority for HR efforts is not to keep records and manage hiring and firing decisions. Rather, the raison d'etre of the Human Resources Department is to increase employee productivity. Increasing employee productivity requires good and accurate communication with employees about employer actions, and also requires that employees not get sidetracked by issues that make them less productive on the job. Rumors can cause a rift in the very culture of an organization and can take up time that employees should be spending focused on the work at hand.
Know the facts. Before you try to address an inaccurate rumor, be sure that you know the facts. As a manager, your credibility can be ruined if you attempt to replace one set of erroneous facts with another. If it is a rumor about company actions or strategies, check with the members of management who know the entire story, find out how much of the information is appropriate to share, and then decide (preferably in collaboration with other managers or HR professionals) on a strategy for correcting the rumor.
If the rumor is personal, however, checking the facts may be inappropriate. Gossip about employees' personal lives has been popular since the beginning of time, but human beings still haven't learned not to speculate about others' behavior. How many times have you heard someone say, "I heard that, but I'm really not sure it's true because I haven't heard it from Sally herself." Or how about, "We really shouldn't discuss John's life when he isn't here." Instead, we all get drawn in to discussing the lives of others because we certainly don't want to hold our own life decisions up for scrutiny.
Management's job in a situation relating to personal rumors is very different than it is with regard to rumors concerning company information. It is the job of management (or Human Resources) to model responsible behavior, which sometimes includes setting the record straight. I read an account of one manager who required an employee who had spread some particularly personal information to meet with each person she had shared the gossip with (with the manager present) and correct the information. Sometimes "correcting the information" just means stating, "I am not sure the information is true, and whether it is or not, it's none of my business." I am certain that this exercise made the employee think carefully before discussing personal information in the future.
Another option that can be helpful when you are certain that everyone in your work group has heard the gossip is an announcement during the staff meeting. The announcement might go something like this: "I know that there is a rumor going around this office about the personal life of another manager in this organization. I want you to know that I specifically forbid anyone in this department to discuss this issue any further on work time. I cannot control what you say off work time, but before you discuss the information any further, I do want you to consider how you would feel if it were information about you that was being spread without your control. I consider the words ‘I don't think that is any of our business' to be a very wise way to handle further discussions of those issues."?
When managers give employees the tools to address a problem, they will be much more successful. Consequently, just telling an employee to stop spreading a rumor will not be as effective as it will if the manager gives the employee the words to say when confronted with the rumor. Follow-through is also important. If, after the statement in the staff meeting that is suggested above, the manager discovers that an employee continues to spread gossip, the manager should respond at the appropriate disciplinary level, including possible termination.
There are legal risks to allowing rumors and gossip to be unaddressed in the workplace, but I will leave that discussion to the attorneys in our group. In my opinion, the productivity and morale issues are paramount and make it imperative that management hear and address rumors as soon as possible. Staying in touch, finding the facts, and modeling an appropriate distance from personal and private information are the best ways to ensure that rumors don't sap the enthusiasm and productivity of your workforce.