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The Office Grapevine
Pros and Cons
The office grapevine has always reminded me of the game ‘Telephone’. Imagine you whisper something in someone’s ear, and they whisper it to another person and that person tells another person and so on. Imagine you start with, “On Saturday Sue gave Mark the hugs that we all sent for their new baby.” By the time it gets to the last person, it might sound something like, “On Saturday you gave Mark the drugs heavy all scent further new baby.” Doesn’t make much sense, right? That’s the game of Telephone!
Problems with listening
Those skewed results are one of the many problems with listening to the office grapevine. Way back, five people ago, there may have been some real basis for what you hear now. However, the original has likely been so scrambled that what you are hearing now might be the exact opposite of what it started out to be. The rumour you hear is probably nothing like the real fact that the rumour is based on.
Another problem with the office grapevine is that the rumour grows. Kim tells Sue that his girlfriend, Leela, is having a baby. John overhears, but he thinks he hears that Leela already HAD a baby. He also leaves before hearing that Kim is thrilled and that they are going to get married next month. Renee hears John telling Greg, but Greg has his mind on his big project. He asks, “When did this happen?” and John answers, “I don’t know…maybe when she went on that long vacation last year.” Of course Renee then mentions to the boss in passing that Leela had a baby last year, and the boss wonders what happened to it because he was at their house for dinner the other night and there WAS no baby.
The problem with the office grapevine is that it behaves the same way modern media seem to behave: more speculation than fact. Rumours grow like wildfires and end up hurting people’s reputations even though they don’t usually have a shred of evidence to support them.
Not only can the rumours pertain to personal issues, but they can relate to professional and company topics as well. Someone hears that the Marketing budget is being cut next year, so they assume that means layoffs. They spread the rumour and co-workers from Marketing start looking for and accepting new jobs. This ends up making the situation in Marketing that much worse because now their budget is cut AND they are losing experienced employees!
The key is don’t listen to rumours. If someone starts gossiping, just state that you need to get back to work and leave. If you can’t help overhearing something, ignore it. Chances are it’s not true or highly exaggerated, anyway.
Problems with speaking
When you contribute to the office grapevine by telling others what you’ve heard, you’re only spreading lies. That’s not going to help your own professional reputation at all. In fact, if you become known as a gossip, it’s very possible that you could be let go for causing discontent, confusion, and even anger or hatred among your co-workers.
If you hear Mo got the promotion to department head, you might want to swear him to secrecy and then let him know. After all, he’s your best friend at the office and you think he really deserves it! The problem is that it might have been Jo that got the job. After all, the two names do sound alike – anyone might make the same mistake, right? How does that make Mo feel? He has told his parents already; they are so proud of his success. He even asked his girlfriend to marry him because he thought he would be able to afford a bigger apartment. Now he has to go back and tell them it’s not true.
Do you think Mo will ever have the same sense of teamwork as he used to? Will he still be the same cheerful fellow, always willing to pitch in and help others? And will he still be your good friend or will he look at you with distrust from now on? Sharing rumours you hear is even worse than listening to them. You are just helping to perpetuate lies and you are taking the chance of ruining your own reputation.
The one exception to the rule
Can you think of ANY time that it’s alright to act on a rumour you hear through the office grapevine? Of course! You should act upon a rumour – but not spread it – when you can either help or protect someone. If Mary gets fired, and you hear her in the ladies’ room muttering, “They’ll be sorry. Oh yes they will,” it might be a good idea to pass that along to your boss. In today’s world, we never know when someone might decide to take revenge on the person or company that they feel has slighted them. Your boss might decide that some added security would be good for a few weeks, but even if he doesn’t, the decision is his to make.
The same holds true if you can help someone. You hear Kirra telling Mabel that the new guy, Tim, is really dumb. She keeps having to correct the timecards he turns in. It’s not just sometimes, but every single week! She tells him she had to correct it, but he makes the same mistake again and again. Instead of just passing on the cruel rumour, chat up Tim one day at lunch. Make a joke about how when you just started, it seemed like forever before you completed your timecard correctly. Ask if he ever had any problems. Hopefully, he will feel a connection with you because you had the same problem – even if you really didn’t – and you can give him a hand understanding what he is doing wrong.
In most cases listening to or spreading rumours is a nasty habit that can ruin your reputation for good. Do NOT participate in the office grapevine in any way. It might even get you fired! In a very few instances, though, you might be able to act on a rumour you hear and end up protecting the company or helping a co-worker instead. The result will be a better reputation and a more serene workplace – both great ways to improve your working environment.
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Shirley Taylor is a recognised leading authority on business writing and communication skills. For almost 30 years she has presented keynotes and training programmes that help people and organisations boost communication skills and develop great relationships both orally and in writing. Shirley is bestselling author of 12 books, including Model Business Letters, Emails and Other Business Documents, which has sold half a million copies worldwide and has been translated into many languages. If you would like Shirley to speak at your next event, visit shirleytaylor.com.
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