Just name the workplace--corporation, university, hospital, nonprofit group or baseball dugout--and odds are excellent that one of the universal hobbies is gossip.
"It's great sport," said Evan Hendricks, publisher of Privacy Times, a Washington newsletter.
By its very nature, rumor-mongering is secretive and, therefore, difficult to track and squelch. The growth of personal computers and office networking also makes it easier to spread information--real or made up--with the push of a button.
Here are some tips for dealing with the sort of idle water-cooler or cyberspace chit-chat that, in its insidious way, can wreak havoc on morale, cause emotional pain and harm careers:
Dear Ms. Work Wise: One of my colleagues spends about half his time gossiping. I feel that it interferes with his performance and puts more of a burden on others. How can I intervene?
--Frustrated in Los Feliz
Dear Frustrated: The only obvious way to control gossip is to have some forum where people can go to express concern when they hear a tidbit that could be detrimental to an individual or the organization. It could be a suggestion box or a trusted boss.
Dear Ms. Work Wise: What can I do about a colleague who is regularly stabbing me in the back? I work in a large firm in a fast-paced industry and understand that constant competition for promotion goes with the territory. But this man actively tries to sabotage me, most recently by spreading false information about my work habits. How can I go over his head without looking petty or weak?
--Punctured in Pacoima
Dear Punctured: That's trickier than it sounds. It's very hard to go over someone's head. One approach might be to keep a journal, tracking the rumors. But then you run the risk of having colleagues think that you're paranoid, petty and/or overly ambitious and unwilling to share credit. Another would be to bide your time, waiting for an opportunity to demonstrate before witnesses that the colleague is being malicious.
Rather than be a stool pigeon, you might follow the suggestion of UCLA psychiatrist Mark Goulston, author of "Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior." Goulston said it's a good bet that a gossip monger lives in fear of being humiliated and that you should confront him, using the person's own imagination as your weapon.
Say something like this: "It has come to my attention from multiple sources that you are spreading false rumors about me. I am not a tit-for-tat player, but if this does not cease and you do not go back to these people and clear up this matter, I'll use what I know to make you feel the way I've felt." Just calling someone on his behavior to his face can often get results.
Said Goulston, "Show me somebody who spreads gossip and I'll show you someone who has a lot to hide."
Dear Ms. Work Wise: One of my colleagues is being treated because he is HIV-positive. He has confided this to me because I sometimes take him in for treatments. But suddenly other people are starting to whisper about his condition. We suspect that someone in personnel looked at his health insurance files and blabbed. If the word gets around, our ultra-conservative boss might go ballistic. How can my friend put the kibosh on this?
--Sympathetic in Santa Monica
Dear Sympathetic: If the cat is already out of the bag, there is little he can do now.
An organization should have strict policies that private information is to be kept private and that there is zero tolerance for divulging health secrets. But few companies have solidly written policies protecting employee privacy. "It's a neglected area," said Evan Hendricks of Privacy Times.
However, he noted, a creative lawyer might be able to patch together a successful lawsuit. Privacy is a gray area of the law. A company that plays fast and loose with such information does so at its own risk. California, for example, has a state constitutional right to privacy--a factor that has been successfully applied on behalf of workers in a dispute over a discount store's job application questionnaire.
Dear Ms. Work Wise: People are saying that my new boss slept her way to the top, as it were. She doesn't appear to be aware of these rumors. Should I tell her?
--Guarded in Gardena
Dear Guarded: You're wise to think carefully about this one. The messenger often gets shot in such a situation. It's a very important issue and the rumors could have consequences for her career and well-being as well as the office environment.
Make a thoughtful assessment of your relationship with the boss. Do you have a good rapport and are you building a good sense of trust? Also ask yourself: Does this person mean a lot to me? If the answers are yes, then pose this question: Will my boss take the feedback in a constructive manner and seek out constructive solutions? If the answer is still yes, go ahead and approach her at a time when neither of you is rushed.
Dear Ms. Work Wise: Just how private is electronic mail? My colleagues and I often gossip about one another over our computer network. Could we get into trouble with the law?
--Concerned in Costa Mesa
Dear Concerned: You could certainly get into hot water with your fellow employees and supervisors--and the courts might not back you up. It's all case by case, and there have been a handful of cases involving e-mail insults that led to firings. So far, employees who have been fired and have sued their employers have not prevailed, despite arguing that their e-mail should have remained private.
E-mail at the end of the day is not very private. Many companies monitor the use of computers and individual e-mail messages. A specialist can even find old, deleted messages on backup tapes in computer systems. Here's some advice: Don't send a message containing information that would hurt someone's feelings or embarrass you.
With e-mail spreading like wildfire through American workplaces, everyone must remember that even a seemingly amusing message can rankle someone if it is unkind or insensitive. It's not like talking on a phone or in person, when body language and verbal inflections can help you make a point or let someone know you're teasing.
Out of respect for colleagues, follow simple principles of courtesy and propriety. Avoid vulgarities, racial slurs and sexist, harassing language. A rule of thumb: Don't say anything in e-mail that you wouldn't put into a memo or say in person.
Here are some other "Netiquette" tips from Patrick Crispin, a University of Alabama student:
* Do not deliberately taunt someone, or "flame bait."
* Be willing to accept the blame if a message causes a problem.
* Do not send messages in all uppercase letters, the e-mail equivalent of shouting.
* Treat messages as if they were going to a boss or a minister.
* Use normal capitalization, and make messages inviting.