Nora Jenkins Townson is the founder of Toronto’s brightest HR consultancy, Bright + Early. As an outspoken, unconventional HR expert, she has helped Canadian companies like Wealthsimple and FreshBooks grow from startups into household names.
Here, she kicks off our new HR advice column, Good Question, to help business leaders navigate the complex world of people management. Have a question? Submit it here.
I work at a small business with a relatively young workforce. When I first started, I held an open-door policy and encouraged employees to talk to me as often as they wanted about workplace issues. My hope was to create a healthy environment where people felt comfortable, not scared, talking to HR. Unfortunately, my plan has backfired. My team now thinks they can and should come to me with every little personal problem, from meaningless gossip about co-workers to dating problems to whining about their workloads. More than anything, it’s a drain on my energy and my time.
I care about my people, but I need to draw the line. How can I put an end to the office gossip while still being there for my team when they need me?
Before I get into this, let me tell you: I think you’re doing a fantastic job. With all of the think-pieces out there about why employees can’t trust HR to advocate for them (argh!), you’ve managed to build trust with these folks. High five!
However positive that is, this is still a workplace, and you want to ensure things stay focused and productive.
Get to the root of the conflict
In my experience, where there is office gossip, there is conflict. And, at a basic level, almost every conflict comes down to a lack of communication. Things happen, we assign conclusions and all of a sudden we’ve got a story: Ben’s a jerk, Sally’s irresponsible, my manager assigns me a huge workload because they hate me. But unless we discuss the facts directly with the person involved, how do we know our stories about them are accurate? The answer is through direct conversations.
Where there is gossip, there is conflict. And conflict comes down to a lack of communication.
I’ve noticed one common thread in your examples that illustrates this perfectly: whether it’s business or personal, your employees are coming to you to talk about *other* people. This is important, because every time your team members use you to vent, they are avoiding a direct conversation that needs to be had. Rather than business development or professional growth, you’re stuck running interference for people who can’t, for one reason or another, just talk.
In order for them to actually resolve their issues (and therefore stop coming to you about them!) what you’ll need to do is steer them towards plain, polite, conversations.
Have the courage to be direct
One solution is to coach your employees, either individually or as a group, on how to have the courage to be direct.
The idea isn’t to single out any one employee or scenario but to create a culture where employees can respectfully and productively resolve their own issues. You can frame it as a personal life skill or a business tactic. After all, direct conversations aren’t just beneficial among coworkers.
But remember: your role is to coach them. They have to own the conversations themselves. If all goes well, they’ll know in the future that a direct conversation is a more productive first step than venting to you. If the problem persists, they can then come to you as a secondary measure. But only then.
Remember: your role is to coach them. They have to own the conversations themselves.
There is one exception. If the nature of the gossip violates your office rules or the law, get involved immediately. You should have a workplace harassment policy in place as well as a documented investigation procedure that can begin right away. Never force someone who has been harassed to confront their harasser.
Another scenario is if the office gossip is about the company rather than individuals (i.e. “I heard we’re thinking of selling” or “is it true we’re making cuts?”) In this case, your employees are giving you a clear sign that your leadership team isn’t communicating transparently enough. Bring this to your leadership team and consider ways you can share more openly. For example, you may try to pass on information about things like company departures or restructures as quickly as possible to avoid a rumour mill starting.
Take care of yourself
Finally, it’s fantastic that you care about your employees’ personal well-being. But, if they are oversharing personal problems, HR’s job is not to sit there and take it. Your time and well-being deserve better.
If the gossip turns toxic, have your own direct conversation. Let your employees know that you are not interested in engaging in harmful conversations about others.
If a team member is experiencing real stress, grief, or a medical issue, gently walk them through their options. Do they need paid time off or information about your company’s group benefits or EAP? Now’s your time to shine and be the supportive HR hero you are.
Have your own direct conversation. Let your employees know that you are not interested in engaging in harmful conversations about others.
If all else fails and you’re simply being pestered with updates about a coworkers’ tedious dating life, a simple “how is this impacting your work?” will help them get the picture.