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Every office is a rumor mill
Management honesty can help control the chatter
Paul Haze doesn't mind starting a rumor when he sees
the telltale signs that something is afoot at work. So a few years back,
when the software engineer noticed bean counters taking inventory, he
felt obligated to tell fellow workers the company would be sold. "Three
months later," he says, "we had a merger."
He had asked his manager what was up. But the boss said
he hadn't heard anything. Still, it was a sign Haze couldn't ignore and
a story he couldn't resist telling. "You get the scoop first!"
Meet your colleagues in the grapevine department, rumor
and gossip. They can have a big effect on the bottom line. Managers know
it, but they just roll their eyes, decline to comment and demand to know
who started such nonsense.
Too often, it's managers who trigger a speculation fest.
Untrusting of employees, they withhold the facts and let them fill in
the blanks. "If employees don't have a definite explanation from
management," says Haze, "they tend to interpret it themselves."
Psychologists say rumors are part of our innate search
for meaning. "They're hypotheses in general circulation that have
run amok," says Ralph Rosnow, a former professor of psychology at
Temple University. He started studying rumors in 1969, when the rumor
surfaced that Paul McCartney had been decapitated. (He hadn't.)
Rumors really fly when at least two conditions are met:
high degrees of anxiety and lots of uncertainty. Then two basic kinds
of rumors -- wish rumors and dread rumors -- emerge, says Rosnow.
Rumors typically are hypotheses with potential widespread
impact. Gossip, on the other hand, usually is presented as fact, and tends
to be more about people.
Gossip flourishes, research shows, in organizations where
members are highly competitive and someone could benefit from tainting
Alidad Vakili, a 35-year-old attorney in San Diego, witnessed
such a character assassination firsthand. Someone anonymously sent a letter
to his friend's superiors last year alleging his friend was a philanderer,
liar and thief. "It's a little like being indicted for a crime,"
says Vakili. "There will still be a lot of people who will see that
person as the criminal they may never have been."
Still, the grapevine is more important than managers
think, says Allan J. Kimmel, a marketing professor at ESCP business school
in Paris and author of "Rumors and Rumor Control." In moderation,
it can be used to influence decisions, vent feelings to relieve stress,
signal status or power, nurture cohesiveness, and translate job tasks
and policies into understandable language, he says.
Management often underestimates the power of the grapevine.
According to a recent survey commissioned by professional employment services
firm Randstad, only 17 percent of employers think workers get their information
from the grapevine, while nearly half of all employees credit it with
first bringing the message of major company changes.
When Meghan De Golyer Hauser worked for one company,
the grapevine said the boss drank on the job, the accountant was stealing
and a co-worker was a nude model. "The rumors," she says, "all
turned out to be true."
Big companies have had to learn the hard way just how
powerful the grapevine can be. Procter & Gamble, for example, had
to deal with outrageous rumors in the 1980s that it was funneling cash
to a church of devil-worshipers. People, holding its logo up to the mirror,
"found" hidden 666s, the so-called mark of the devil. P&G
phased out the logo, hired additional staff to handle consumer letters,
mass-mailed to churches and sued the rumor spreaders.
Microsoft is another persistent rumor victim: that it's
moving to Vancouver, buying the Vatican, and giving $5,000 and a trip
to Disneyland to everyone who tries its software. "That (last) one
I deal with every 18 months -- I swear, every 18 months," says Mark
Murray, director of pubic relations.
To quell rumors and gossip, company brass has to talk.
It has to be timely and honest. "If they don't come through with
their promises, or they communicate the full story ineffectively,"
says Kimmel, "they have themselves to blame."
If bosses wait too long, their efforts look like feeble
attempts at damage control. If they gloss over it, they will have less
credibility than the mongerers.
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