HR & Management

Trust, but verify: Why hearsay is never enough in business

8 min read

21 November 2018

Melissa Powell, COO of The Allure Group, unveils how detrimental hearsay can be to a company’s culture – and how it cannot be prevented.

A popular television commercial for Geico Insurance shows a woman sitting in her cubicle and taking a phone call from her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend.

“What do you mean it’s not working out, Craig?” she asks. “I just introduced you to my parents.”

Leaning over the partition in the background is a meerkat, who immediately starts spreading word of Craig and Sheila’s breakup to other meerkats at adjacent cubicles. And before Sheila so much as hangs up the phone, everyone is in the know.

There’s truth in this extreme example. Word of any news – especially the bad kind – spreads quickly in any workplace setting. It leads to hearsay and its cousins, gossip and rumour – and can have harmful effects on any business’s culture.

It is generally agreed that there is no way to eradicate these whisper campaigns. People will always talk, and will always offer opinions, informed or otherwise.

The best an employer can probably do is to keep the chatter to a minimum. And in extreme cases, as when such serious matters as sexual harassment are alleged, a manager must do his or her due diligence in order to separate fact from fiction.

One way to get ahead of a potential problem is to create a positive culture, one that encourages transparency and togetherness, where all news (the good and the not-so-good) is regularly shared, speculation and rumour are not allowed to take root and employees are coached up on the dangers not only of loose talk but thoughtless emails and social media posts.

That is precisely the kind of environment sought at The Allure Group, the coalition of six eldercare facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn. We try to make The Allure Group a place people want to work, understanding that while everyone wants to be fairly compensated, it’s not all about the money.

It is about getting out of bed in the morning and looking forward to the day ahead, rather than feeling the dread of an unfulfilling job – something I learned over the course of working at Allure.

My own commute consists of a three-hour roundtrip each day. It is something I am more than willing to do, knowing that I will be around people dedicated to providing our residents with the best possible care.

As is the case with everyone else in upper management, I also walk the halls of each of our facilities every week, touching base and answering questions, and making sure every employee is aware that he or she is valued and heard. That is one giant step toward fomenting a positive culture.

There are others. You could select an employee of the month, and make certain to recognise everyone’s accomplishments.

There are also tangible rewards, as when Allure CEO Joel Landau, accompanied by delegates from the 1199 Service Employees International Union, surprised the 250-plus Harlen Center employees with a bonus of $1,300 apiece during an appearance at a previously scheduled employee-appreciation event on June 27.

Matthew Fenley, The Allure Group’s chief marketing officer, accompanied Joel and summed things up rather well in his remarks to the workforce: “It’s not working for Mr Landau; it’s working with Mr Landau. That same notion is what we feel and what I personally feel, every time I set foot inside Harlem Center.”

Again, creating such a culture looms as the best way to reduce gossip and rumour-mongering, to making it a place where hearsay is less likely to come into play.

While Rieva Lesonsky, CEO of GrowBiz Media, said in one report that there are instances where gossip “shows camaraderie among your team,” she cautions about the dangers of it going too far, as it too often does. An author/speaker named Peter Vajda cut to the chase in that same report, defining gossip as “essentially a form of attack” – and indeed that is the way it’s viewed in HR annals.

The deleterious effects are manifest. It can negatively impact morale, productivity, reputations and trust, while at the same time increasing anxiety and divisiveness. It is disruptive, and can increase a business’s attrition rate.

It comes about, ironically, because of poor communications, because the company does not spell out its vision well enough for the rank and file or because the employees themselves lack social skills.

One report noted a dispute arising among three executives who occupied adjacent offices but seldom communicated face to face; rather, they chose to email one another.

There are those who have suggested that companies are best served adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward gossip.

Better, then, to help employees brush up on whatever communication skills they might be lacking, or those that might be exacerbated by outside factors like cultural differences or varying dialects. Better for managers to adopt an open-door policy, so that workers are free to discuss the company’s policies and direction, rather than letting uninformed speculation take flight.

Other options include hiring a business coach, who Lesonsky said is “a lot like a marriage ccounsellor” or dealing directly with an employee identified as the root of the problem.

That coaching approach, as it is called, involves a frank discussion with the offender, and if the behaviour does not change, progressive discipline that could result in termination.

When hearsay results in a serious charge – the specific example offered in one report was a sexual harassment claim with no witnesses – the tips centre on a CEO or HR professional digging deep. That means gathering the necessary documents, maintaining impartiality, asking open-ended questions and taking accurate notes.

But as with a great many issues, the best solution is to create the best possible work environment – to make everyone aware of what is expected, keep the lines of communication open and promote togetherness.