“People talking behind each other’s back” was something that troubled Riya, the HR Manager of a leading business process outsourcing company, as Prem, one of the key resource, approached and told her that he is going to leave the organisation. After brooding for several hours over this on her way home, she decided to have a detailed chat with Prem.
The Next Day
Venue: The Office
Time: Around 10.00 A.M.
Riya: Hi Prem, Good Morning! Can we quickly meet for a discussion?
Prem: Hello Riya, yes sure. Where should I come?
Riya: We can meet in the cafeteria and discuss over coffee.
Prem: Sounds great! Will be there in fifteen minutes.
Venue: The Cafeteria
Time: Around 10.30 A.M.
Riya: How are you doing today?
Prem: All well… still can’t get my thoughts out of what happened last week.
Riya: I completely understand. I was thinking about the issue yesterday, and, decided that I must speak with you in detail to understand the issue in a better way. However, I am not with you on your decision of leaving this job because of this.
Prem: I understand your point too Riya, but I can’t take this any further. My very friends are ignoring me, have ganged up against me, and, are talking behind my back. You are well aware that I am working here since the last 7 years, and, that makes it even more difficult for me to take such a decision.
Riya: Prem, we can talk this over. I suggest that you take some time off and give this a great deal lot of thought before deciding whether to quit or not. Not many employees get such a transition opportunity. The management has a lot of trust and belief in your abilities.
Prem: Above all, I need to stay calm and peaceful. I am unable to concentrate on the job as my very colleagues are keeping away from me, and at times, I learn from others that they are not talking to me because of this opportunity.
Riya: To quit the job over such an issue is not going to help you either. You are losing a good opportunity, transition and promotion for those friends who don’t even talk to you or encourage you.
Prem: Yes, I have analysed my career growth path, but when I hear that I got this only because of favouritism and not because of my talent and ability, it truly hurts me.
Riya: Why don’t you talk to them? Communication is the key for all problems. Don’t you think so?
Prem: Yes, I do. Let me try. I have a client call. We can discuss this again some time later.
Riya: Sure, once you are done, give me a call. We can schedule the discussion and meet again.
Riya and Prem went back to their respective workstations and resumed work. However, Riya could not get to brush herself away from thinking what Prem had encountered. She was thinking as to why employees gossip, and the prevalence of such conversations in the workplace as it affects their productivity. So, she decided to interact with Raj, Prem’s friend, to understand the nature of the issue and work out a solution.
Venue: Riya’s Cabin
Time: Not recorded
Riya: Hi Raj, how are you doing?
Raj: Hi Riya, doing great, anything important?
Riya: Yes. Can you please drop by my cabin?
Raj: Sure. I will be there.
(Raj knocking the door)
Riya: Please come in, Raj.
Raj: Yes, Riya. What can I do for you?
Riya: Raj, there seems to be a problem at the workplace. I thought of speaking to some of our employees to understand their feelings better about the work environment. I need to ask you a few questions. It will be helpful for me to assess our work environment if you answer them rightly.
Raj: Ok. Please go ahead.
Riya: On a typical day, how many colleagues of yours do you speak to outside of work?
Raj: 2 to 3 officially and 5 to 6 people in general.
Riya: Can you please tell me what you talk about? Is it about weather or travel or about another colleague?
Raj: Movies, cricket, travel, and sometimes, about other colleagues as well.
Riya: How do these conversations start? Like, what leads to such talk?
Raj: Most of the time I talk about people on the basis of situations and reactions, and, we talk about it once the incident is over.
Riya: Do you initiate or is it done by the other person? What was the topic last time?
Raj: Usually, I listen to what the others are talking. If they talk what I think, I agree to their point instead of initiating the talk.
Riya: Do you feel good after this conversation? In what way?
Raj: Yes, I relieve my stress by talking about others instead of keeping things to my heart…
Riya: Do such conversations affect yours or the others’ work in any way?
Raj: The habit of talking about others is definitely not good for work. It makes us waste time discussing about others and reduces productivity. In addition, we tend to form a blind image about this person and it affects our perception about him or her.
Riya: Why do people talk about others?
Raj: As far as I think, there are two reasons for people to talk about others. One, their own insecure feelings, and the other, is their incapability to defend themselves in front of others.
Riya: Interesting...! What makes you participate in the discussion about others?
Raj: Well, basically to seek information. In addition, we can feel the belongingness to the group and overcome the feeling of isolation. For me, it is all about curiosity to know.
Riya: When do you generally talk about others? If you don’t mind, can you share any recent happening?
Raj: If I learn about people talking about me directly or indirectly, then I will start talking about them as well. I share news about others to the people I trust most. I only trust 4 to 5 colleagues of mine and share things confidently. I am upset over Prem’s behaviour nowadays, and, we talk about him. It is not because he bagged a transition opportunity, but because, he kept it a secret from all of us.
Riya: How do you feel when someone else talks about you or what happened to you? Do you get upset? Or, is it OK for them to talk about you?
Raj: I have heard from people that my fellow colleagues talk behind my back. I feel upset on hearing people doing this to me.
Riya: Nowadays, people are using Facebook, WhatsApp etc. to connect, talk, discuss and share many things with each other. Do you use them?
Raj: I prefer personal conversation rather than using social media or WhatsApp. I would prefer not to use a medium where we can record conversations and play safe.
Riya: Thanks for your cooperation in answering all my questions. Do you also agree that you and your friends spoke about Prem recently? Don’t you think it will upset him? He may not have kept his transition a secret, but, he could have waited to share it after confirmation. Why don’t you guys break this silence?
Raj: You are right Riya. After talking to you, I have realized that if I can be upset about people talking behind my back, it is natural for Prem to get upset as well. We should not have done this to him. Let me talk to him.
Riya: Thanks Raj, See you.
Riya felt very relieved for doing something in tackling the issue. But, she was also thinking that she needs to have some office policies/ trainings that help employees to solve the issue of gossiping and engage them in more productive work. Workplace gossips are prevalent in all organisations. In fact, 70 percent of our daily conversations will be about others when they are not present. It can be good or bad. But, when it exceeds its limit, it is the responsibility of the management to ascertain why such things happen and find out ways to get rid of it as it affects the work outcomes.
Case Study by Dr. Shameem S is Assistant Professor in OB/HRM at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai. She has previously worked at National Oxygen Limited, Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR) as faculty, and as a Guest Scientist at University of Gottingen, Germany. Dr. Shameem holds a PhD in Management specializing in HRM/OB from Department of Management Studies, DoMS, IIT Chennai and an M.Sc. in Applied Psychology from Pondicherry University.
Analysis by Rohit Hasteer is the Group CHRO for Housing.com, Prop Tiger.com and Makaan.com
This is a classic situation that most HR professionals need to be prepared for and be acquainted with, as they are required to be dealt with in a delicate and intelligent manner. Managing a large team is never easy, and, with HR on the periphery, driving a culture that promotes transparency and openness is even more challenging. Riya comes across as a mature individual who believes in a straightforward and a dialogic approach, and, this has helped her manage such a situation. First and foremost, she seized the initiative and spoke with Prem to try and understand his state of mind, and, what led him to take the drastic step of resigning. She presented him with a perspective of future opportunities that await him, and, help him grow even further. Also, Riya's empathy gave Prem the much-needed comfort without really being in consent with his approach. Lastly, she assured him that this was not her last conversation, and, she would like to connect with him again, after he indicated that he would give a second thought to his decision on the basis of their conversation. Prem, on the other hand, was mentally disturbed by the gossip and the social boycott that he was experiencing from his own team members. It seemed more like an escape route than a solution to his problem. We could see his resistance to take up conversations with his team and try to fill the vacuum.
Knowing Prem's resistance to initiate conversation with the team, Riya also took the lead to talk to the other team members. She smartly picked Raj for this conversation knowing that he is friends with Prem, and, might be her best chance to resolve the issue. Her conversations with Raj were beautifully constructed. She ensured that she sounded more inquisitive and intrigued than interrogative. She gave Raj an opportunity to share his views and drove him into introspection. The moment Raj internalized how he would have felt had he been in Prem's situation, he was willing to accept his mistake, and was also keen to make amends for it. It was heartening to see how Riya could make a point, without pointing a finger. The biggest victory for Riya was Raj's concluding remark, wherein he assured her that he would initiate a conversation with Prem.
Another stand out from Riya's conversation with Raj was her keenness to understand the root cause of such gossip. Gaining insights beyond the situation on hand, and, to look at the physiological aspect of how people look at the other's success and behaviour in the team, and how, lack of information and clarity lead to assumptions and gossip. Prem would feel much relieved and positive once Raj goes up and talks to him. This will open a window of opportunity for both of them to share their sides, and, get on the same page. Gaining a friend back, coupled with the conversation with Riya over keeping a positive mindset leaves a great chance to retain Prem.
However, Prem too needs to understand and must be coached upon. At the work place, even if people are friendly, they may not necessarily be friends. The corporate world is highly competitive and people may not always be kind. Therefore, it is required that one develops a thick skin, and at the same time, does not shy away from breaking the ice and collaborate with the team when needed. Running away from situations only leads to further misunderstanding and disconnect within the team. HR folks can learn a lot from Riya on how to handle such situations. It is very important for every HR SPOC to not pick sides in such situations or get involved in behind the back conversations to gain an understanding, which only fuels further gossip. One has to look into facts sans any prejudices, understand feelings, and, get to the root of why such things are happening.
While it may sound primitive, but even today, the simplest, and yet, most effective way to evade gossip is to promote transparency and communication within the team. As a leader or HR Manager, we need to be proactive and upfront about communicating changes that happen among a team. This infuses trust in the leader and leaves no room for speculation. HR's job is to defuse such gossips and promote transparent and clear communication that fosters higher collaboration.
Analysis by Shilpa Kabra Maheshwari Vice President & Head- Human Resources, National Engineering Industries Limited
Gossip spreads like wildfire but is not an organisational hazard. Informal communication in an organisation occurs through grapevine or word-of-mouth communication. Grapevine consists of rumours and gossip, and, travels from person to person during breaks, in the lunch hour etc. Often, it travels more quickly than the other channels of communication.
Gossip can range from innocuous, garden-variety conversation to something which is potentially hurtful, warranting intervention from the management. In our case, Prem decided to quit as he felt that there was no way out from the gossip going around him. As the HR Manager, Riya was upset over the situation, since she was on the verge of losing a valuable talent owing to the toxic work environment. The situation confronting Raj is similar to our workplace experiences- we do not like to gossip, but unknowingly, become a part of the gossip chain. Riya, after a detailed discussion with Raj, learnt that workplace gossip can lead to a gradual decline in employee trust and morale, and, the management needs to give it a serious thought.
Uncertainty, assumptions, non-transparency by management, lack of communication, sudden changes, good or bad news pave the way for conversations, chit-chat and gossip. While gossip is inevitable in any workplace, the management can take certain controlling measures.
To Communicate, be transparent: Happenings in the workplace must be regularly communicated to the employees. When employees are made cognisant of the management’s thinking, are a regular part of the meetings, and, experience workplace relieve sessions regularly, the need for gossip subsides. Consistent and authentic communication will not allow speculation and gossip to build up.
Meet with the team: The management needs to bring up the topic of gossip in a staff meeting to educate employees on the negative consequences. Skip level meetings must be organised to build a bridge from the boss to the worker, and, create a comfortable working environment where everyone feels heard. The flipside to negative gossip is the creation of a culture where people share positive stories about work, customers, and culture.
Support the victim: After getting the facts right, the management should support a healthy work environment to address the issue in a way that reinforces and promotes communicating a positive culture. The topic of gossip may be brought up in a staff meeting to educate the team on its negative consequences without stating names and confidential information.
No gossip policy: Gossip at the workplace must be discouraged by way of bringing in an official policy and including a section against gossip in the company handbook. Gossip is an activity that can drain, distract, and downshift employee job satisfaction at the workplace. Every employee who has been a part of employee gossip will admit that he/she did not like it. To create a more professional workplace, it must be ensured that the employee is fully aware that gossip will not be tolerated in the office, and, such instances could result in severe punishment or even termination.
In the box: Employees are uncomfortable to express themselves. A suggestion or a grievance box can help managers to become aware of the goings on outside closed doors. They can address hidden issues, which when solved at the right time, can cut through the gossip cycle. A company interested in a healthy work environment will value the opportunity.
Make them learn: Gossip is a form of learned incompetence, an acquired skill that produces poor results. Overcoming such an incompetence requires replacing that with skill. Rigorous orientations, regular recall sessions of company policy will help employees understand that the company has zero tolerance towards gossip mongers. It must be ensured that a zero-tolerance policy toward gossip is a part of the induction process and outlined in the company's handbook.
Gossip is not a problem; it is a symptom. The symptom disappears when the critical mass of leaders ceases in enabling it, create trust in healthy communication channels, and invest in building employees’ skills to use them. Gossip will always die when it enters the ear of the wise. To be a fool or wise is completely our choice!
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