Conversation amongst co-workers is a normal part of working life. Verbal interaction can not only build morale and give employees a break but conversations that may not begin with work related subject matter can still give rise to new ideas and operational improvements.

That said, employers need to be aware of the risks of workplace gossip and how to manage it. A recent poll from recruitment marketing firm Employment Office has shown that an office talker has taken the conversation too far for 63 percent of respondents.

Although in most cases employees dealt with the situation politely, there is a risk that workers can become irritated by too much office chat or that the conversation can turn to unhelpful rumours or inappropriate subject matter.

It is important that managers are aware of the atmosphere in their team and keep an eye on employee interactions. When rumours around the workplace get out of hand they can become bullying or harassment so employers should ensure they provide workplace harassment training to all staff members.

Workers should be aware that venting to workmates about other colleagues could get them in trouble, particularly if their complaints are consistently directed at one person. If a worker has legitimate concerns about another team member or manager’s behaviour they must know the correct process for dealing with these. Any workplace harassment training provided should include the complaints process as well as information about defamation and victimisation.

A further issue for managers is the subject matter that team members may be discussing. Quoted in the Age, Jane Bartrum from recruitment firm Randstad says there are not many safe topics for workplace discussions; “If in doubt, just talk about the weather with your colleagues. That will always keep you out of trouble.”

 

iHR Australia recognises the need for caution but suggests that Bartrum is going too far. Effective training on appropriate behaviour in the workplace can help workers to judge when banter is crossing the line and also empowers managers to curb conversation when it gets out of line. Reminding team members of organisational values and respect for others may also help in curtailing gossip.

Employers who are concerned about the culture within their workplaces should look at strategies for addressing this such as workplace inquiries. Gossip may come from team dissatisfaction or concerns about organisational change so communication is key in slowing the rumour mill and tackling any underlying issues. Creating a healthy culture in the workplace starts with management so it is essential that managers role model the behaviour they want to promote and encourage employees to approach them about their concerns. Many organisations appoint Contact Officers from within a team who staff may feel more comfortable in approaching with their grievances.

iHR Australia’s CEO, Stephen Bell says that building trust and promoting open communication are vital; “People are not robots so it’s unrealistic to expect workers not to engage in banter or conversations about their lives and the wider world. That is why it is so important to create a culture in the workplace that empowers people to speak up about inappropriate behaviour so that if someone goes too far, the behaviour is not ignored and can be dealt with before it becomes an even greater issue. Providing workplace harassment training that focuses on a combination of good culture, unlawful behaviour and individual responsibility can help workers understand better what is expected of them and what to do if an incident occurs.”

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