“You won’t believe the drop in productivity in their department as the scandal unfolded,” said my friend, as we huddled close together over our coffee like a pair of vultures over a carcass. “The breakdown of trust is irreparable. It’s done the company major damage, not to mention the victim.”
The victim? That took me back some decades to my own deeply distressing experience as the butt of scuttlebuttery.
Wet-eared from university and in my first full-time job, I had neither the funds nor the good sense to recognise that it might be apt to swop my seriously sporty and fantastically informal student attire for something more appropriate for sitting behind a typewriter (it was that long ago) in a publishing house where the men wore suits and ties (the publisher, a bow tie) and everyone was always referred to as “Mr X” or “Mrs Y”.
Thankfully, I was switched-on enough not to wear my silky little running shorts to work. But, foolishly, I believed that body-hugging t-shirts and denim skirts short enough to make Pamela Anderson blush were suitable garb for an assistant editor.
As it happened, I was not at the company for long before I was promoted. That’s when the tongues began wagging loudly enough to resonate even in my naïve, farmer’s daughter ears. Apparently, the reason for my rapid climb up the corporate ladder was because the view from below would be…let’s say, more expansive. Word had it my boss was looking for more reasons to invite me into his office.
The rest of the story is predictable. I was mortified. With doubt cast upon my abilities, I sobbed passionately in the toilet for hours, and have worn only skirts and shirts of Mormonic proportions ever since.
Ok, so my mini-experience with gossip in the workplace did not result in huge losses in productivity or result in any damaging repercussions for the company. These days however, some organisations believe that gossip can be so detrimental that they’ve introduced policies that ban it. Get bust gossiping for the third time at New York-based Bridgewater Associates, for example, and you can get fired. The rule at this, one of the world’s biggest hedge fund companies, is emphatic, “Never say anything about a person you wouldn’t say to him directly.”
The problem is, gossiping comes so naturally to humans and, let’s face it, it’s fun. Even the bible recognises this and tells us, “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts”. Moreover, these days you don’t even have to get off your butt to hang out at the well or water cooler to do it: you can email, tweet, FaceBook, SMS and Skype your bits of skinner in an instant. It’s that easy.
Then there’s the argument – supported, of course, by research – that gossip can be a positive thing. It’s what triggers many a journalist’s most interesting stories. It informs, entertains, influences, reinforces moral standards (i.e. lengthens skirts), enhances friendship and teamwork, and helps us make decisions. It’s a technique of survival. Evolutionary anthropologists, in fact, believe that caveman grunt-gossip helped our ancestors identify the best hunters and mates: “Urk noof umpf daargu arp.” (“But he’s got such a small rock.”)
For sure, there’s little doubt about the power of gossip: a study by the National Academy of Sciences claims that “individuals sometimes place so much stock in gossip that they accept it as true even if their own observations and experiences suggest otherwise”.
In other words, my old colleagues probably still believe that my one-time promotion came about because of my ill-chosen outfits, which is not surprising because I have not been promoted since.
(This article first appeared in Business Day in 2010.)