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The Rumor Mill

from the Workplace Violence Prevention E-Report –

©2016 Gail Pursell Elliott

Does your organization have a rumor mill?  If you think not, then you are either in the minority or out of the loop. People love gossip.  “What’s the latest dirt?” There are websites, periodicals, and programs devoted to rumor and hearsay. Even some news media outlets report hearsay, which is rumor repeated as fact.  The issue is not the rumor as much as the willingness of many to take this misinformation to heart, repeat it, believe it, and wish to act upon it. Those who do feel justified in their actions, even believing they are acting on behalf of others or of the organization.  Unfortunately, this is how Mobbing takes hold, spreads, and destroys.

The problem with rumor mills is that the initial rumor may be based on a kernel of fact that is spun in a negative way, taken out of context, or expanded with inaccuracies as a “what if” scenario.  While fact checking has become more popular, it pales next to the plethora of inaccurate information that is circulated.  When it comes to the workplace, fact checking that is comprehensive is important. When Mobbing is in play, looking for patterns and origins can appear daunting.  Yet if not explored, the risk of further abusing a target and propagating a destructive organizational dynamic which will continue after the current situation is past is real.

The other issue is the impact upon the target.  Just how does someone defend oneself against a lie?  If someone is accused of some action which is later proved false, do people ever forget that the person was accused?  “Well, he was exonerated but …”  The psychological impact on someone subjected to mobbing can last for years as well as take physical form.

One case involved a target who worked for a large health care organization and was mobbed within her department.  Following an extensive investigation by Human Resources, it was determined that the person had indeed been targeted.  It also identified a larger dynamic in the department that made it impossible for the target to be able to be rehabilitated in that department.  The target had suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the mobbing activity and received therapy and other supports from the employer as well as a transfer to another location.  However, even though it has been several years since the mobbing, the employee continues to have anxiety issues, tremors, and other physical issues as a result of the extreme psychological harassment. This also makes it difficult for the employee to seek work elsewhere.  Sometimes even when help comes from the organization, it is too late.  Whether faster intervention would have prevented the extent of the damage is unknown.

When first presenting informational programs on Mobbing, Human Resources professionals asked me for suggestions of things to say and things to do, which were added.  Like many suggestions of this type, some of them might be used to brush off serious concerns employees wish to reveal rather than using them to intercept a situation before it gets out of hand or becomes destructive.  So using these suggestions does not take the place of investigating, establishing patterns of behaviors and determining what conflict may have triggered the process.  Following are some things to say and do that may be of assistance.

“That doesn’t make sense. Is this a rumor?”

“This sounds like slander.”

“I wouldn’t repeat that to anyone else.”

“Did you actually see/hear this first-hand? What were the circumstances?”

“I think I should write down what you said.”
“Spreading malicious gossip might be construed as harassment.”

“How do you know that?  Do you have proof?”

“Sounds like you’re trying to gang up on him/her.”

When dealing with a negative rumor mill that seems to be targeting individuals, it is important to keep a diary or objective documentation so that patterns can be tracked.  Writing down such things as date, place, time, what was said or what happened, who was involved is helpful.  Memory is a poor record keeper and can be influenced by other factors. Staying objective, becoming an observer rather than an involved participant, can be difficult but is necessary.  Keeping a simple list like this can help with investigations, intercepts, or can provide useful information to a consultant,  if one is contacted for assistance with an escalating situation or to address morale or employee relations issues.  In addition, keep lines of communication open. Establish clear rules of conduct. Be consistent with enforcement. Use some type of counseling or mediation.  Be sure to follow up when addressing issues.

An article in Mental Floss, 50 Words That Sound Rude But Actually Aren’t 1, includes the word clatterfart.   According to a Tudor dictionary published in 1552, a clatterfart is someone who “wyl disclose anye light secreate”—in other words, it’s a gossip or blabbermouth.  Even though gossips have been around for centuries, we can still keep their rude noises to a minimum if we pay attention, track, and encourage others not to repeat them.  It is pointless to try to start rumors that don’t spread or are stopped before they get very far. If this becomes more of the norm, rumors won’t necessarily stop but they certainly will slow down and perhaps be more subject to verification before being repeated.  After all, a reputation for being open, honest, and fair is the type of rumor most of us would prefer.


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Gail Pursell Elliott is known as The Dignity and Respect Lady.  She consults with organizations, presents at conferences, and offers programs on Mobbing and soft skills topics with a focus on people treating each other with Dignity and Respect.  Gail is founder and proprietor of Innovations “Training With a Can-Do Attitude” located in Eastern Iowa.  Contact Gail through her website innovations-training.com

Gail has been recognized as an authority on Mobbing, Bullying and Harassment since 1998 and has been a guest expert on both television and radio programs.  Gail is the author of several books, including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse: See It, Stop It, Prevent It with Dignity and Respect and is co-author of the 1999 book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace, the definitive book on this subject based on the original research of Dr. Heinz Leymann. Her Food for Thought essays are read by people around the world.


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