The Guardian

London

Eighty per cent of workplace conversation is gossip. But on the whole it is a useful source of information, says Marc Zakian. What will you talk about at work today? How to get the photocopier fixed? How to deal with a difficult client? How your company can be a world leader? Probably none of these, because research shows that 80 per cent of workplace conversation is gossip.

So what are employees gossiping about? And is it always a bad thing? “Nine out of 10 office workers have disclosed information given to them in confidence,” according to Sarah El Doori from UK, who recently interviewed 1,500 people about gossip at work. “About half of this is harmless personal information, regarding relationships, health and money problems. But a third was work-related, confidential matters, about who will be promoted and who is getting a pay rise. A quarter of the people we spoke to even admitted to their co-workers that they were looking for a new job.”

So why are office workers prepared to risk their careers by disclosing sensitive information? “A minority of people gossip to gain power,” continues El Doori. “They use information to be in control. One in three said they enjoy the attention they get by revealing things because it makes them the centre of attention. And one in four is trying to be helpful when they disclose confidences.”

“Gossip can lead to a problem being brought into the open,” says Francis Wilson, human resources adviser at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “I can think of several occasions when a department had a major difficulty, which we only discovered by chatting with people in the pub after work. We can discreetly pass this information to a line-manager, and a situation can be resolved before it becomes critical.”

But, he says, “HR mustn’t become the office spies. In well-run companies there is no reason for this to happen. Good organisations allow employees to air their views via focus groups and employee attitude surveys. It’s only when companies don’t keep up with worker sentiment that negative gossip really thrives. It’s equally important that employees are aware of management’s intentions. Nothing promotes gossip more than a lack of concrete information. Rumours spread like wildfire, and the longer workers are kept in the dark, the more dire the rumours get.”

In Britain alone, (according to British government figures) gossip costs the UK around one per cent of gross domestic product. Consequently, employers take a very dim attitude to rumourmongers. Around one in 10 companies have issued a formal warning to workers for gossiping, and four per cent have even asked a member of staff to leave.

“People often fail to realise the repercussions of betraying a confidence at work,” says El Doori. “If you have a problem, rather than telling other people, you should confide in your line manager who can deal with the issue discreetly.” Rumours quickly turn into Chinese whispers, and soon become wildly exaggerated and negative.

As Bernard Shaw said: “No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.” It’s not just in the office that you need to be discreet. Secrets worth millions to companies are often divulged in the most banal circumstances. An information management company recently identified the most common situations where information was leaked. These included unisex loos, the gym, supermarket queues and taxis.

So why do we indulge in so much gossip when it is seen as negative, time-wasting and bad for morale? Gossip, it seems, is a human imperative. Psychologists believe that it is a part of a human survival programme. In order to get by in social groups, you must talk about the people around you, find out more about them and exchange information with them. We need to know who the fools and the scoundrels are and gossip informs us and puts us on our guard. And, if we are aware that there is a gossip grapevine, it helps us to stay honest for fear that people will speak badly of us.

Gossip looks up the hierarchy and sends information down the food chain about the person you really need to know about, the boss, their idiosyncrasies, their peculiarities and their relationships. Your boss may seem austere and unapproachable, but if word of gossip reaches you that at the weekend he’s a steam-train fanatic, you can engage him in conversation about his favourite subject and be sure that he will think of you positively.

There is, of course, an element of peer pressure in gossip. If you don’t join in the chat, you can be seen as standoffish and not part of the group. But, even if you don’t like to gossip, you can content yourself that most of it is not malicious — only about five per cent, in fact. And, let’s face it, an office without gossip would be a very quiet place. Imagine if we only

indulged in a quarter of the chit-chat we normally do.

Communication would break down, because the information we get from other people after all is fundamental to managing our relationships.