Negative Gossip: the Not-So-Silent Killer

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cc licensed (BY 2.0) flickr photo shared by Dee ❤

It’s been three days, and I am still reeling from an incident that occurred in my recreation facility. The incident resulted in the firing of a student supervisor who had been on my staff for three years. It has forced me to reevaluate the expectations and policies I have set for my staff, how staff is trained on the policies, and how those policies are enforced.

I view the student worker position in my facility as an opportunity for students to develop transferable job skills and learn how to be good employees. For many students, working at our recreation center is their first job—ever. They have to learn how to work as a team, provide good customer service, take initiative, and communicate with people who are different from themselves.  They also learn that missing a shift, being late, or slacking off at work can negatively impact the entire staff.

My supervisors and graduate assistants work hard to train the student staff to perform to a high standard. We provide mid-semester informal evaluations, as well as written evaluations at the end of each semester, so students always have feedback on how they can improve. If an employee policy is broken, we meet with the offender to make sure they understand what they did wrong, and help them to develop strategies that will prevent a reoccurrence. I feel that with encouragement and a good plan of action, a mediocre employee can become great, and my default is to give employees the benefit of the doubt and a second chance to do things the right way. However, the incident of three days ago has convinced me that I’ve been far too forgiving with one particular bad behavior: negative gossip.

It’s easy to recognize and deal with certain kinds of poor employee performance, such as tardiness, poor customer service, and failure to adhere to specific policies (e.g. cell phone use, reading on the job, etc.). But knowing how to effectively deal with a persistently negative employee who otherwise has average or even above-average job performance can be harder to navigate. A supervisor may tend to think that negative comments from an otherwise great employee should not be taken as seriously as correcting obvious poor work performance. But once you realize that just one person’s negativity has poisoned your entire staff, you understand that negative gossip needs to be dealt with swiftly and firmly.

Negative gossip can ruin morale, undermine leadership, and cause divisiveness among the staff. It’s difficult to maintain a good attitude at work when you’re surrounded by constant negative talk. Employees who are not directly engaged in the negative gossip can become paranoid, unhappy, and ultimately, job performance suffers. But unless there has been specific training that addresses negative gossip, student employees may not readily recognize this cancerous behavior.

I am responsible for failure to deal swiftly and effectively with negative gossip, so I am partially to blame for the events of three days ago, when negative gossip escalated to full-scale disparagement of our department in a most blatant way. The offending employee was dependable, knowledgeable, provided great customer service, and was always on task. However, over a period of three years, my GAs and I had talked to this employee numerous times about negative gossip. That was way too many chances to give for a behavior that can be so devastating.

So now I will collaborate with my graduate assistants to develop policies and training that specifically address negative gossip. Some strategies could include:

  1. Define negative gossip, cite examples for clarity, and include steps that will be taken if negative gossip is heard or observed. Include this information in the employee handbook so that all employees are aware of expectations.
  2. Train student supervisors to recognize and address negative gossip on their shifts.
  3. Work with student supervisors to develop strategies they can use to increase morale on their shifts, including the introduction of “positive gossip.”
  4. Increase student employee engagement by designing methods to gather workplace ideas, comments, and concerns from employees at all levels.

I’m looking forward to being more intentional about developing a positive workplace culture and limiting negative gossip. I would love to hear how others have addressed the issue of negative gossip.

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