In the 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons, written by Booth Tarkington and later adapted for the big screen by the great Orson Welles, Uncle Amberson counsels his irate nephew George that “Nobody has a good name in a bad mouth. Nobody has a good name in a silly mouth either.”
George, a hothead under the best of circumstances, might for once actually have a valid reason to be upset. Some townsfolk are rumored to be gossiping (ironic, no?) about his mother and her relationship with an old friend. Incensed, George goes and confronts one of the town criers about her part in the talk (a conversation that doesn’t go very well), and when Uncle Amberson hears what George has done, he’s aghast. To Amberson’s way of thinking, you don’t inflame a situation like this by lending weight to the gossip. You just let it die. After all, “Nobody has a good name in a bad mouth,” so there’s no point in getting your knickers in a knot about it.
Unfortunately, some office gossip can’t be handled that efficiently.
What fuels office gossip?
Many workplaces are rife with office gossip. Some gossip is merely an attempt by those not in the know to get in the know, and the more opaque leadership is the more gossip there’s likely to be.
But other times, gossip is malicious, with people talking about things that are none of their business and wondering out loud about stuff that’s better left unexamined. In extreme cases, gossip can cost your unsuspecting coworkers their jobs along with their peace of mind.
It’s called unethical communication
I’m referring to what is known as “unethical communication,” a phrase coined by Dr. Heinz Leymann in the 1990s.
Dr. Leymann is one of the first researchers to study workplace mobbing (which describes when an employee has been targeted for removal from an organization), and he discovered that unethical communication is one way mobbers meet their goals.
Through a process called “delegitimization,” the target, once a valued employee, is stripped of his accomplishments and his worth so that the mobbers can justify and effect the target’s exit from the workplace.
Unethical communication includes rumors; false information; failure to correct false information; ridicule, belittling, and humiliation; shunning; and deliberately excluding the target from workplace information loops.
It doesn’t matter how unfounded the gossip. Once the “bad mouths” start moving in a concerted effort, the target’s reputation is tarnished, and the mobbing process has begun.
What can you do?
If you’re a leader and in a position to stop nasty gossip from spreading, I urge you to do so. You may be tempted to avoid stepping in out of a misguided belief that it’s “not your place,” because all the grown ups must “fight their own battles,” but unethical communication is malevolent and deserves your prompt attention.
If you aren’t a leader and find yourself being sucked into unsavory talk about a coworker, I urge you to think about abstaining. It could be that you’re being used unwittingly to bring about the downfall of a coworker who doesn’t deserve it.
When we’re children, we’re taught that gossip is wrong, but as adults we’re mostly taught that gossip, especially workplace gossip, is a harmless indulgence. That’s just not true. Ask any target of workplace mobbing.