Natural Foods Merchandiser

Develop a clean 'air' act for your workplace

The Natural Employer

A certain amount of gossip seems inevitable in a small business where the employees all know each other. Even though it can't be quantified, gossip probably has a negative impact on productivity, teamwork and the bottom line. But what can you do about it?

At Green Fields Market in Greenfield, Mass., talking about co-workers in their absence was considered normal behavior, even though it made some uneasy.

It took a survey of Green Fields Market's 50 staff members by an outside consultant to make management realize the extent of the problem. "It seems to be a feature of the workplace culture that people throughout the organization, from upper management on down, express negative personal opinions about others without regard for who might hear," the consultant reported. "Venting and gossip appear to be widely accepted, and people on the receiving end don't seem to feel empowered to say, 'I don't want to hear that.'"

The report was a wake-up call for Green Fields' three-person general management team: Patti Waters, Suzette Snow-Cobb and John Eichholz. They quickly grasped that the solution had to start with them as the store's leaders and involve the whole management group.

Overcoming denial
"Our first step was to admit it's a problem," Waters says. "I wanted everyone to buy in and not be in denial."

Several months after the consultant's report came out, the management group held a retreat off-site with a facilitator. Waters proposed that the group develop a manager code of conduct.

Some managers claimed that since they had received the report, the indiscretions had stopped. As Snow-Cobb describes it, "They were saying, 'We're professional. We don't need a code.' They needed to realize that they themselves were venting, perpetuating gossip and not going directly to the person with whom they have a problem."

Their denial started to dissolve when one of the department heads admitted to feeling she could not trust her fellow managers to keep confidential the topics discussed in manager meetings. At last, the group reached agreement on the need for a code of conduct, to be worked out over time during weekly manager meetings.

The code is still in progress. But the value lies more in the process than in the product, Waters thinks. "Just talking about it at manager meetings has been worth a million dollars. The discussion has led to serious exploration of this charged issue. But I've been persistent and we're going to work on it till we come out the other side."

Confidentiality culture shif
t Meanwhile, management announced its responses to the employee survey, including the retreat, the confidentiality discussion and the ongoing work on the code of conduct. As Snow-Cobb puts it, "We wanted to say to the staff, 'We heard you.'"

Declaring an intention to maintain confidentiality and refrain from gossip, the managers have obligated themselves to act as role models to the rest of the staff.

"The consultant used the phrase 'confidentiality culture shift,'" says Waters, "and this whole thing is a culture shift."

If you want to shift your own workplace culture away from gossip and toward greater respect for confidentiality, here are some behaviors to follow:

  • As a supervisor, never criticize absent members of your staff to their peers.
  • Make agreements with your fellow managers to diplomatically interrupt when you hear each other saying something inappropriate in public.
  • When a co-worker brings gossip to you, change the subject.
  • Encourage employees to let others know when they are uncomfortable with the content or tone of a conversation.
  • Refrain from venting to your co-workers or fellow managers. While venting may seem to relieve pressure so that you can get back to work, it can further entrench the venter in negative feelings and poison the mind of the listener.
Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group ( [email protected]).

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 11/p. 21

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.