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How in the world can anybody stop gossip?

Question: How can a manager effectively put the squelch on office gossip?

Answer: Gossip is an issue for almost all managers, and for some it’s a plague.

It’s childish, it’s negative, it’s damaging to productivity, and it won’t stop until the manager does something about it.

Over the years, LOM has addressed the problem many times, and what all management experts say is that the starting point for eliminating gossip is a professional conduct policy in the handbook.

The policy should say that professionalism is essential for a law firm because clients need to respect and trust the attorneys and staff. Then list whatever standards the office expects from staff such as honesty, empathy, respect for others, courtesy, and so on.

Along with those, list the behaviors that are not acceptable such as abusive language, rudeness, and “gossiping and other personal discussions that are inappropriate for the work setting.”

With a written policy in place, the administrator can treat gossip as a disciplinary issue.

Handling the gossip complaint

As to how to handle gossip, the consensus is that when someone complains about it, ask what is being said. Then ask the complainer to write down who said what to whom and when. Explain that the office has to have the information clear and in writing before it can address the issue.

If the staffer doesn’t want to put the accusation in writing, do nothing. The complaint is probably not valid.

If there is a written complaint, however, thank the staffer and explain that the issue will be taken care of. And say no more.

The dreaded confrontation

Now it’s time to beard the lion.

Meet with the gossiper and say “I have heard something that concerns me. I have heard that you have been saying such-and-such about Staffer A. Is that true?”

If the accused doesn’t deny the charge, turn it into a business issue: “Does what Staffer A is doing affect your job?”

If the answer is yes, point out that work concerns should be brought to the administrator directly and not talked about with the other staff. Then discuss whatever the work problem is.

However, if the answer is no, ask “did Staffer A give you permission to discuss this?” And if not, “why do you need to be involved with this?” Ask too “when you told So-and-So about Staffer A, how was that helpful to So-and-So?”

Refer to the policy and why everybody has to follow it: “We have a policy that everybody must respect everyone else in this office. If you spread stories about somebody else’s business, that person will not be willing to help you out when you need help. The same is true with other people. They will avoid you out of fear that you’ll talk about them. And your performance will suffer as a result.”

Finally, address the personal side of the issue: “How do you think Staffer A feels about what you have said? How do you think Staffer A feels about you?”

Handing down the ultimatum

Then lay down the law.

“You know that gossiping is against our policy. From here on, I expect you to focus on your job and not make personal comments about other people. If someone is affecting your performance, you must tell me about it, not anybody else, and I will take care of the problem for you.”

A gossip-free office

Management consultants also recommend taking a strong stance against gossip. Tell staff the office will be a gossip-free environment. Most likely, everybody will appreciate that.

Define gossip. It is passing hearsay information to others, usually negative information.

Identify the kind of person who gossips. Gossipers are people who take pleasure in spreading rumors. They want to make themselves feel important. They want to be the big cheeses who know everything.

Explain the resultant damage. It kills trust. It wastes time and causes everybody’s work to pile up. And it kills teamwork because the victims don’t want to work with the gossiper.

Give staff a script to follow when someone comes in with a story, perhaps “I don’t think we ought to talk about that. It’s So-and-So’s business, not ours” or “Let’s not criticize him. He’s not hurting us.”

Point out too that closing the door to gossip increases anybody’s stature. People neither respect nor trust someone who talks about others; they reserve that for someone who is discreet.

And support that with an Irish quote: “Who gossips with you will gossip of you.”

A few good tactics

Beyond that are personal things the administrator can do to discourage gossip.

One is not to take any comment about a staffer at face value. Get the facts. Talk with the accused.

Another is to refuse to listen to personal stories. Simply say “I prefer to leave personal issues alone.”

But most effective of all is to assume that anybody who has time to gossip doesn’t have enough work to do. When a staffer comes in with a story, say “I don’t have time to discuss that. I’m swamped right now. Can you help me out?” And then hand over some extra work. That staffer won’t be back.

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