Recent Trends in Human Resource Management

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Managing Rumors

Managing Rumors

HR leaders are reporting that economic fears are prompting more employees to eavesdrop and gossip about the impact on potential job losses. Transparency, communication efforts and decisive action are needed to ease uncertainty, experts say.

Eavesdropping and gossip are on the rise in U.S. workplaces as the recession continues to raise employee fears of potential job losses, a new study suggests.In a poll of 494 HR professionals, conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of respondents said they've had to deal with an increased number of eavesdropping incidents in the last 12 months as a result of the uncertainty about the U.S. economy.

Examples of such incidents include employees lingering outside conference rooms or near the HR leader's door to catch wind of possible layoffs or terminations.

Also in the survey, half (54 percent) of HR professionals reported an increase in gossip and rumors about downsizings and layoffs among their employees, and about the same percentage (53 percent) said they had to address those rumors in the year between October 2007 and October 2008, when the study was conducted.

"What this clearly tells us is that we need to step up good communications in organizations and that's where HR can really show its leadership," says Steve Williams, director of research for Alexandria, Va.-based SHRM. "The more transparent you are, the less likely you'll get gossip around the recession" and people lingering around other people's desks and offices, trying to hear something."

We're seeing these incidents across the board, in all industries and in companies of all sizes," he says. "No company is immune. Fear is fear and gossip is gossip. It's happening everywhere."

Striking though the increase in eavesdropping and rumors may be, "it's perfectly normal to expect employees to pay much more attention to what is happening, or may happen, with their employers in difficult economic times," says Mark Hyde, whose self-named consulting firm is located in Rochester, Minn.

"Of course there will be gossip and rumors; expect it," he says.Without supplying any statistics,

Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, chairman and CEO of Chicago-based employee-assistance provider ComPsych, says his company has been getting significantly more calls in the last couple of months "from employers concerned about how employees are reacting" to the plunging market and economy.

"People are trying to get information in ways that are, shall we say, less than direct," says Chaifetz.

"We're hearing about people trying to get into closed-door meetings or people looking at other people's mail. Employers have to be very mindful, right now; very careful that they don't let information out prematurely.

"Make sure, if at all possible, any difficult decisions are not discussed in e-mails or written communications," he says.
"Leaks of information, especially at a time like this, could be cancerous in an organization."

Chaifetz also stresses the need to move quickly when making hard choices, such as whether to go through layoffs or a restructuring, and to "be direct, open and honest in your communications."

"Once you make that decision to lay people off, get that out there as a clear plan," he says. "If additional layoffs will be necessary down the road should the economy continue to worsen, communicate that as well. The best way to combat gossip in a company is to move decisively and quickly."

Sometimes, combating the problem with proper preparation, quick decisions and open and effective communication is easier said than done, says Megan Slabinski, executive director of Menlo Park, Calif.-based The Creative Group.

"Sharing information quickly and candidly can prevent employees from speculating, but there are times when confidential conversations among top officials are necessary," she says.

When private meetings must be held, "take those closed-door consultations away from public view to eliminate the buzz of what's happening. Go off-site if you can."

Chaifetz warns, however, that too many off-site meetings and out-of-the-ordinary gatherings by senior leaders can also give rise to fear and speculation. When announcements are made, Slabinski says, companywide conference calls, state-of-the- state meetings or brown-bag lunches are suggested. "HR really needs to pull people together at that point and open its door," she says.And while open communication "can't be possible for all things," says Williams, "it's the perception of communication that is important." The best way to create and convey that perception, he says, is to tell employees "why certain things can't be communicated at that particular time.""Be honest. Tell the truth. People tend to think those in management are evil, holding back information ... . In so many cases, that couldn't be further from the truth," Williams says.

"Often, management simply doesn't know why something is happening or how long it will last. Sometimes, simply saying you don't know something or the reason behind something, but are willing to address it," takes the sting off what could be perceived as malicious silence, he adds.By the same token, everyone from the top down should be on the same page when employees come asking, says Hyde."Many companies make the mistake of overlooking the front-line supervisors and only inform senior management about what is going on," he says.

"The front-line leaders need to know something since they ... have the best opportunity to stomp out any bad rumors."Even worse, when some of the front-line leaders inform their employees they have no idea what is happening with senior management, it makes things worse and fear heightens," Hyde says.Lastly, says Slabinski, companies shouldn't be afraid to discipline the "bad apples as soon as possible."

"Employees who are at the heart of gossip or who are caught eavesdropping and then spreading rumors need to be told to stop," she says. "If their behavior persists, it's perfectly acceptable for HR to address the problem in a punitive way," such as verbal or writing warnings, or worse.The spreading of bad information, however it's done, "stifles productivity and adds to stress in the workplace," Slabinski says. "HR leaders are completely in their rights" to discipline these culprits.

[About the Author: Kristen B. Frasch became the managing editor of Human Resource Executive in August of 2000 after more than 20 years of experience in business and consumer journalism, 14 spent as an editor and writer for various Philadelphia area newspapers.]

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