By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/30/2009 10:59:06 AM ET 2009-11-30T15:59:06

A group of workers at a Boston company going through staff cutbacks recently started gossiping about a male colleague who drank too much during a business dinner. Some suspected the muckraking was an attempt to get the guy at the top of the layoff list, and he ended up getting a pink slip.

An employee for a major retailer believes she was fired for talking about another employee’s drug habit. She thinks she shouldn’t have been let go because the gossip was true.

And a worker at a Florida resort recently quit her job because the gossip got so out of hand that it would go on for hours, and she was often the subject of the office whispers.

The recession not only ushered in unprecedented job cuts and economic pain but also seems to have opened the door to more whispers around the water cooler. (None of the workers mentioned above wanted their names used for fear of being associated with negative gossip at work.)

“People are worried about losing their jobs, so it’s a big fuel for the gossip fire,” said Sam Chapman, author of “The No Gossip Zone.” “Insecurity is escalating with all this unemployment, and the backbiting gets worse because the stakes are raised.”

In a survey conducted last year by the Society for Human Resource Management, 54 percent of managers said they had seen an increase in gossip or rumors about downsizing or layoffs due to uncertainty in the U.S. economy.

Another study by staffing company The Creative Group found that 84 percent of surveyed marketing and advertising executives said office gossip is common. And 63 percent said it has a negative impact on the workplace.

Fighting the rumor mill
Some employers are going on the gossip warpath because they believe it affects productivity and undermines employee morale.

Beth Leone Noble, a partner at Raleigh, N.C., law firm Leone Noble & Seate, which handles personal injury cases and bankruptcies, considers herself a laid-back employer. She lets workers surf the Internet during work hours, the office dress code is casual, and she even allows employees to bring their kids into the office if they have child-care issues.

Gossip, however, is unacceptable at the law firm.

“I don’t think there is anything more poisoning to a work culture than gossip,” she said.

She is serious about it. Leone Noble, who had to slash some workers’ hours to keep her staff of 14 on board, recently fired an employee for gossiping even though she had a stellar performance record. She warned the worker twice and also held counseling sessions with the employee, but the gossip kept coming.

“Bottom line, you cannot tolerate it and the minute it rears its ugly head, you have to be prepared to stop it, even if it means letting an otherwise valuable employee go,” she added.

Social media Web sites like Twitter and Facebook are helping fuel the gossip train, said Denise Wheeler, an employment attorney with Fowler White. “Nowadays people are gossiping on social media networks and blogs, gossiping about fellow employees, their bosses and the company in general,” she said. 

For the most part, an employer can fire you if you dish dirt on your colleagues. “I’m not aware of any labor law that protects anyone from being terminated for gossiping,” Wheeler said.

Open communication
Alas, no matter what employers do, they’ll never be able to fully quash gossip — nor should they try to stamp it out completely, said Rick Gibbs, senior human resources specialist with Administaff, a firm that runs human resource functions for nearly 6,000 small businesses.

“I think healthy, informal communications between employees can be helpful. It can open the lines of communication,” he said. Indeed, research has found that gossip can help cement social networks .

Companies can help quash rumors by having open communication with employees, Gibbs said, especially during tough economic times.

“No Gossip Zone” author Chapman, who banned gossip at his public relations firm, Empower Public Relations, two years ago, said he has seen productivity skyrocket as a result.

He uses the tattletale approach to quelling gossip. “We call it completing,” he said. “If you say something negative about someone not in the room, we say that’s gossip and we invite you to go tell on yourself.”

While Chapman acknowledged that political backbiting can help further your career, he stressed it’s a “nefarious” tactic that will come back and haunt you in the long run. “The gossiper and the gossipee both get hurt,” he maintained. “No one likes a gossip.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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