Workplace rumours: how should organisations respond?

By David Donaldson

November 9, 2018

Transparent glass doors leading to an office where business meeting is taking place

Rumours are a normal part of workplaces in times of change, but when handled poorly can be damaging. What can organisations do about them?

Are job cuts coming to your workplace? Will you be forced to work longer hours for the same pay? Is there a restructure around the corner?

Chances are your colleagues have speculated over these questions at some point. Indeed, the stories might have even been true — office rumours often turn out to be quite accurate.

But this isn’t just idle talk — it shows where staff anxieties lie, making it a useful source of information about what people are thinking and where problems may be developing.

“If potentially harmful rumors do arise, managers should take steps to fight the rumor…”

Some even argue rumours can be a better indicator of staff sentiment than self-reported survey data like state of the service reports, as they reveal preoccupations respondents may not be willing to disclose openly.

Research suggests the topics most often subject to rumour are things like impending job losses, negative changes to work conditions, conjecture about the nature of possible organisational changes, waste by executives, the impact of change on customers and the loss of workplace facilities.

It’s hardly surprising people are worried about job security and their ability to do their work, as negative changes in these areas can have a substantial impact on individuals’ lives.

Negative rumours seem to be more common than positive ones, and are associated with increased stress among staff, according to one study, which focused on a hospital going through a period of restructuring.

“By far the largest number of rumors were about changes to jobs,” write the authors of ‘Management are aliens: rumors and stress during times of organizational change’.

Rumours are “verbal symbols” that reveal the psychological climate of the organisation, they argue.

“The prevalence of negative rumors can be explained by considering rumors as collective attempts to regain informational or predictive control when faced with uncertain circumstances. By forecasting negative events, groups try to be prepared for worst-case scenarios.”

By understanding what might be coming next, employees are able to prepare themselves and adapt to changed circumstances.

They can also play a role in galvanising staff for or against certain goals — negative rumours are common during enterprise bargaining, for example, displaying staff concerns during a time of uncertainty.

The organisation’s communications strategy (or lack thereof) can also influence the number of rumours. When executives take a secretive approach, withholding large amounts of information, speculation and gossip naturally fill the informational void as staff struggle to work out what’s going on.

Stories of poor decision making or waste might be prompted by staff not understanding the reasoning behind certain decisions, for example. Faced with a lack of explanation from executives, employees might conclude they are being kept in the dark deliberately — or may even come to believe organisational leaders themselves don’t know what’s going on or have no direction.

All the while, staff are continuing to wonder whether they should be worried about the security of their job, and instead come up with their own explanations.

Responding to rumours

Although rumours are basically unavoidable, they might indicate staff concerns are not being addressed and can reinforce stress already being felt.

So how should organisations respond?

“We advocate that managers pay close attention to the content of rumors rather than dismiss them as idle chit chat,” write the authors of ‘Management are aliens’.

“If left unaddressed, rumors can cause a great deal of harm.”

But a “ham-fisted” cracking down on gossip can easily backfire and make the situation worse, they add.

“We recommend that managers try to prevent rumors by adopting open and participatory communication practices.”

In some cases training staff on the nature, causes and consequences of rumours can help them become more informed consumers of information.

Damaging stories should be tackled head on.

“If potentially harmful rumors do arise, managers should take steps to fight the rumor, including strong denials from credible sources and clear instructions to staff to desist from spreading defamatory rumors,” they argue.

Getting the information right

While lack of communication can fuel rumours, it’s also important not to over-burden staff with information, according to the authors of ‘A strategy for communicating about uncertainty’.

Some organisations give employees large amounts of regular information without explaining what it means or why it’s being supplied, in the hope this will help them understand what’s happening. Often staff don’t have the context to understand this information in the way executives do, and are left confused.

“We recommend that managers try to prevent rumors by adopting open and participatory communication practices.”

Or it might be the wrong information. Some organisations provide plenty of information about topics staff aren’t interested in, while avoiding potentially controversial issues — which are often the exact things everybody does want to know about.

Even where the right information is being given, it’s still important to link it to the question of why. Discussing motives can help complete the picture and potentially boost trust.

A useful approach to information can be ‘underscore and explore’ — having a clear strategy for what executives want to communicate to staff, while also “listening attentively for potential misunderstandings and unrecognized obstacles”.

A formalised process for staff to give feedback on what they are worried about and what questions they want to ask executives works for some organisations. As executives discover what keeps staff up at night — which might be very different to what they expect — and respond to questions, staff will hopefully come to understand better why certain decisions are made.

But of course it’s not always straightforward. Surveys show staff generally prefer to hear news from their immediate supervisor, though middle managers are often not aware of future plans and the reasoning behind them, and executives are not able to talk about them. So thinking about who is empowered to talk about what is important.

A common trade-off is transparency versus timing. Waiting to disclose information until all the details are nailed down can fuel rumours by leaving an informational gap, but talking about things too early can create unreasonable expectations, or just be confusing. Inevitably this requires judgement, but having a good idea of what staff actually want to know is a good start.

So while rumours cannot be eliminated, understanding what’s driving them and responding can at least reduce the stress felt by staff worried about the future.

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