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Gossip and Rumor in the Workplace
By Pamela Evans, Ph.D.
Dec. 22, 2015

Has a team parent ever organized a mutiny as they criticize your program? Has one group of employees ever poisoned the working atmosphere of the gym by shunning another employee? Has your staff ever started to panic, and began applying at other gym clubs because a rumor started that you were closing your second location? Gossip and rumor are two entities that can be extremely detrimental in the workplace. Gossip runs the spectrum from simply sharing and bonding with co-workers over mundane matters to vicious lies. Rumors are facts, both true and false, being communicated without being substantiated. As a manager or owner you always want to be in control of your story – those who spread rumors or engage in gossip undermine your authority, disrupt your community, and ultimately seek to dismantle your business.

The detrimental value of gossip and rumor occurs when people use them vindictively. Why would employees or clients engage in such damaging behavior? There are many reasons, but one of the most common triggers is if they feel like they have been lied to or cheated. There is an unspoken agreement in every relationship. Between management and staff it is, “I work hard for the company, and in turn management will notice my efforts and reward me with monetary raises, more responsibility, praise, etc.” The agreement with clients is, “I pay your gymnastics club and in return you will train my child to learn the sport with a compassionate and caring teacher”. If an employee or a client feels that the company has not followed through on their part of the promise, they become resentful and may resort to spreading gossip and rumors.

Rumors can circulate and gossipers materialize when employees and clients do not feel that their concerns are being heard or when they are insecure about their place in the company. Some people are just seeking attention and others are desperate to belong. Make sure that employee or client concerns are addressed quickly and professionally. Do not allow the parents to plan their attack in your bleachers without confronting the issue directly. It has been proven that shared dislikes form stronger bonds than shared likes, and so a new employee may opt to join the group by insulting the manager behind her back, or a new parent will feel camaraderie more quickly by commenting on the weaknesses in your team coaches. Some people are just naturally unhappy, and although there is very little recourse for screening clients in terms of congeniality, there is no reason to keep staff members who are naturally negative.

Three common relationships foster gossip and rumor. These are among employees, such as the resentment that arise because one staff member perceives that her co-worker is being allowed to work overtime and then leave early from a regularly scheduled shift. Rumors can start between employees and management, when the employees are worried that lay-offs are imminent or that raises are being suspended. Lastly rumors and gossip begin with the clients directed at the employees, the program or management: when clients start to speculate that the star cheerleader only received the center position in the routine because she is the coach’s daughter or that the meets fees are inflated to offset losses in other programs.

So how can we as managers combat this situation? The techniques are the same as you would use to control an unruly class or to raise your own children. You must be diligent, consistent, respectful, and committed to the process. The good news is that once the system of communication is in place, the employees should be able to learn to resolve their own issues, and should be able to defend the program without alienating your clients.

So what exactly should you do?

  1. Deal with the situation immediately. Do not let issues fester. In fact be proactive. If you hear about several incidents which involve the same person or the same team parents – call a meeting.
  2. Ask questions and then listen to the answers. One good trick is to repeat back what you think they have said. People want to be heard, and by ending a conversation with, “so I think you are saying that this particular aspect of the problem is the most worrisome”, you give the upset party the opportunity to correct or clarify their position and express expectations for a resolution.
  3. Form a plan and then follow through on your promises. Communicate clearly what you are going to do next, often this resolution is a compromise. You do not need to give everyone what they want, but make sure that they feel involved and that their concerns are being addressed.
  4. Be honest and as transparent as possible. When clients understand all of the expenses that go into a competitive team, they are less likely to complain about the high costs during meet season. When coaches understand why a policy has been put in place, they are more likely to enforce the rule.
  5. Model the behavior you expect in others. Manage by wandering around the gym floor and interacting with the staff. Be visible. The coaches need to see that you are working as hard as they are.
  6. Find the good in the employees and the clients, and then pass along these compliments. Just as in teaching, it is most effective and rewarding to catch people doing a job well, rather than to always be critical.
  7. Foster ownership in the program. When parents feel that they are part of your gym community, they are more likely to work to solve problems rather than cause them. When the staff feels that they have a voice in the process they are more likely to fight to keep the peace. Ultimately you are building a culture of cooperation, mutual respect, and professionalism.
  8. Be in charge. People will appreciate that someone has control over the situation. They want peace, they want resolution, they want a strong leader.
One of the greatest diffusing agents of an emotionally charged situation is the ability of each of the parties to apologize. Some people will refuse to apologize because they feel that it is an admission of guilt. However, an apology is simply an acknowledgement that you regret the situation has occurred. A heartfelt and effective apology should be specific. You are sorry that you hurt their feelings. You are sorry that your comment was misunderstood and caused such turmoil. In a true apology, each person must take some responsibility for the situation. They need to understand that some action of theirs caused unhappiness to another person. It is never acceptable to simply say, “I am sorry you are so sensitive, I clearly was joking”. Instead explain, “I had no idea that my comment would hurt your feelings. I meant it as a joke, but now I can see that it was insensitive. Please forgive me.” Teaching your staff that apologizing reveals a strength of character, and can alleviate many future conflicts.

When issues arise, and they always will: address the situation immediately, listen to the parties involved, find compromises, be honest and follow through on your plan, lead by example, compliment freely, empower the people who work for you, teach those around you the power of a sincere apology, and in the end remain in charge.