Psst! Is Water Cooler Talk Killing Your Workplace?

Posted 20 June, 2019 in Human Resources

Workplace gossip

Psst! Want to hear something juicy? Workplace gossip that often takes place around the water cooler could be seriously harmful for your organizational health.

In fact, it’s been proven that workplace rumors can damage morale, make employees more cynical, and lower productivity – regardless of how credible or accurate they are.

The reasons for these rumors are many. They’re fostered in times of organizational change, new leadership, mergers and acquisitions, media attention, and more. Once embedded, they can be difficult to remove.

But there is a remedy – effective internal communications can minimize the influence of disruptive rumors, even eradicate them before they take seed.

Don't get psst! Follow these six internal communication tips to combat workplace rumors.

1. Provide a positive outlet

When it comes to spreading workplace rumors, email is one of the worst culprits. About one in seven work emails could be considered gossip, and it’s nearly three times as likely to be negative than positive.

Since it’s not always possible to prevent rumors entirely, it’s useful to make available a positive outlet for feedback instead.

Circulate a staff survey to canvas opinions on current hot topics. This allows staff to air their feelings and management to get a read on the mood of the workplace. Anonymity encourages staff participation, and built-in reporting makes extracting insights easy.


2. Share regular updates

No news is definitely not good news. Rumors spread in a vacuum, and the absence of communication is more likely to breed speculation than bury it.

Maintaining a system of regular communication is critical – even if there’s nothing new to say. For staff, hearing from management regularly reinforces a sense of transparency and reassures them that nothing insidious is being hidden.

Of course, that isn’t to say that absolutely everything should be shared. Commercial sensitivities will preclude certain details from being shared, but the act of regularly updating as much as reasonable is valuable in itself. A well-designed digital newsletter can be very effective.

3. Be up-front

A business run behind closed doors is a business where rumors fester. The way to nip these in the bud is to tackle them head-on. That means fronting up in person.

Addressing rumors is always more effective when done face-to-face. For staff, this conveys credibility and openness. If this isn’t feasible, for example, if you operate a chain of remote offices or retail stores that would be difficult to visit, use video instead.

One popular approach to this is to run an ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) with your CEO or other senior management. Ensure they’re sufficiently prepped to convincingly outline the company position and to handle the likely questions posed of them by staff.


4. Uncover underlying trends

It’s one thing to be well prepared for managing harmful rumors in the workplace, but it’s another to identify them before they begin. That’s infinitely more powerful – though does require some detective work.

Take a proactive approach to your intranet forums and social media channels. Analyze the content for common threads suggesting dissatisfaction. Are their common denominators in subjects, teams, locations, etc?

It’s important not to jump in and address the threads directly – pulling on threads has the tendency to unravel quickly. Respond to subject-based issues through employee surveys, AMAs, or other channels; team or location-based issues through comms delivered by the appropriate line managers.

In this way, positive outcomes may be achieved without issues spreading any further than the water cooler.

5. Share results and outcomes

How’s that new product line performing? How did the presentation to that potential big customer go? Where did we finish up at the end of last quarter?

Organizations have a plethora of significant events happening all the time, from major projects to sales pitches and end-of periods. If internal communicators have been doing their job right, employees will be aware of all these – hopefully awaiting the results with eagerness.

It’s important to share the results with staff, even when the outcomes are disappointing. In fact, that’s when it’s crucial. Few things foster unproductive speculation more than the conspicuous absence of information, especially around a subject that was previously highly promoted.

Be sure to share the results equally with all staff, including mobile workers, remote offices, and those working in non-desk-based roles.


6. Affirm correct behavior

Sometimes it’s prudent to remind staff of correct ethical behavior where potentially-harmful water cooler talk is concerned. It’s human nature to enjoy a good chat – in fact, it’s helpful for building social confidence – but the temptation to overstep reasonable boundaries is all too easy.

It’s not an opportunity to roll out the office iron maiden or another instrument of punishment though. Reinforce correct behavior through passive internal communication channels like corporate screensavers or wallpapers. It’s the gentle yet official reminder of what expectations of everyone are.

This can even be a positive force in the workplace, where the only water cooler talk is around how great it is to work there!

Rumor, speculation, and indiscreet water cooler talk feels innocuous but can actually introduce very real negative influences into a workplace.

Left unaddressed, they can spread so fast and so convincingly that they become synonymous with truth.

Taking the front foot with effective internal communication can prevent this, without having to resort to hiding the water cooler.

Human Resources

Michael Hartland

More blogs by Michael Hartland

Michael Hartland is Content Marketing Manager at SnapComms - the market-leading provider of digital employee engagement solutions. Michael's most happy when writing. The beauty of language and the power of communication are his passions.