Drowning at the Water Cooler

Beverly Flaxington Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.

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Dear Bev,

I recognize that as a leader it’s up to me to instill good communication practices across my team. But I have a couple of people who are gossips.

They will gossip about team members, about me and my family, about what’s happening in our community, about what’s happening on the global stage. Give them a topic and they’ll find a way to make a story out of it.

I would not care if all of the work were getting done. But lately I find them in one another’s offices, or in the lunch room supposedly getting a refresh of coffee or taking long, long lunches. I know that different people are motivated by different things and maybe their motivation is information sharing, but we’re a small 15-person advisory firm and I can’t afford to have people who aren’t totally committed to what we’re doing.

And before you ask, yes I have talked with them about it. So far they haven’t ventured into anything that is destructive or divisive, but I fear that is going to happen at some point. These are grown people. Telling them they need to sit alone in their offices isn’t the right answer. Is there a way to stop them without insulting them?


Dear R.W.,

Let’s start out with a definition of gossip to ensure we are on the right track: casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.

If we accept this definition there are a few things to consider. It most definitely sounds like these discussions are happening in both a casual and unconstrained manner. Your comment about going for coffee leads me to believe you think they stage running into one another so maybe they have texted “meet me in the coffee room” in advance! I don’t know from your note if the information they are sharing about others in the firm is true or not, so this could be a problem if there is smearing going on or someone’s reputation is being damaged.

I talk to managers a great deal about gossip and encourage them to use it to their advantage. Fundamentally, whether casual or not, gossip is information. If they are talking about the global stage it may or may not help your firm, but stories about team members or what’s happening in the community could be very useful to you – depending on the substance and veracity of this information.

I don’t know how direct you have been with them even though you say you have talked with them about it. Saying “knock it off” or “why do you gossip?” may be missing the point entirely. Being very specific about what you see, what they are doing, how it is impacting the firm and what you ask them to do instead would be the best approach. Recruiting them in an organized fashion for their observations and information could be the way to turn the tide on this.