How the Best Leaders Manage Rumors in the Workplace

A rumor starts and begins to spread. Eventually, you hear from employees, in a tone of fact, that there are problems in your organization. What happened? I liken this case to the phenomenon of a yawn spreading from person to person. How many times does a rumor have to repeat before it's taken as fact?

The answer is--not that many. Most senior leaders, however, lack an understanding of the impact of the rumor mill and the necessary skills to manage it.

How Rumors Undermine Leadership

  • Morale – both team morale and individual contributions suffer when rumors fly

  • Conflicting communication – as you set the vision for your team, rumors can contradict the direction you are taking the company

  • Sabotage – conflicting information can lead disheartened employees to sabotage the direction of the company wasting both time and money

  • Bullying – personal attacks through rumors can lead to bullying in the workplace that then becomes a workplace health and safety issue

  • Legal issues—in the worst case scenario, unchecked rumors can lead to legal liabilities in the form of creating a hostile work environment, harassment, or defamation

If there are such dire consequences of rumors, why do we, as human beings, start or sustain them? The overall answer to this question is when we face with incomplete information; we fill in the blanks ourselves to reduce ambiguity in our environment.

Why employees start rumors

  • Knowledge is power – when employees feel powerless, engaging in rumors gives them a semblance of control

  • Fear – engaging in “what if” thinking, employees can come to believe the worst case scenario in the face of change

  • Lack of clarity – What did she mean when she said we’d reorganize? What will happen when we close that location? These are fair questions posed by employees in the face of change. Without clarity from senior leaders, employees are left to try to interpret how changes will impact them without guidance.

  • No venting mechanism – Sometimes employees need to vent in the face of fear, uncertainty, and change. Without an approved and anonymous venting mechanism, your team will vent to each other, and rumors will start.

Informal communication networks exist in every organization – from schools to families to businesses. Why should you, the leader, care if the informal system (the grapevine) turns into a rumor mill?

Put simply – as the leader are responsible for an organization’s vision and getting all resources to align with that vision. Rumors fracture this vision and break down cohesive cultures. Organizational culture can grow organically and informally, but the result may look more like Frankenstein's monster than the learning organization you hoped to create.

Forbes states research that suggests 70% of all organizational communication comes through informal networks, whether you call it the grapevine or the rumor mill, this network is powerful. Forbes’ contributing writer, Carol Kinsey Goman, reveals 47% people in her study believe a message delivered through informal channels where only 42% believe the formal message delivered by senior leadership. The remaining 11% are undecided.

How do the best leaders handle rumors?

First, resist the impulse to shut down or “forbid” informal channels of communication. You’ll only fuel the fire. Try the following ten (10) suggestions instead.

  1. Be transparent – communicate openly with your team. If you are at the beginning of a merger, for example, and you are unsure of what the next step is but you have a taskforce working on it, then that’s what you tell your employees.

  2. Communicate often and consistently. Use any means necessary to disseminate information: email, meetings, newsletters, memos, voicemail, videos, anything. Have a plan for communication and stick to it. If you don’t have any new updates, don’t skip the communication – tell your employees there is nothing new to report.

  3. Put it in writing - Goman found the majority of the respondents in her study, 51%, believed the organizational message delivered in a newsletter where only 40% believed the same message delivered through the grapevine. This is great news!

  4. Be human – show you are vulnerable. If laying off workers makes you sad, show it. If you are concerned about the safety of your people, show it. No one wants to follow a robot during times of crisis.

  5. Enforce policies against harmful personal rumors and bullying – There is no excuse for rumors spread through malice. During the highest pressure times, the best and worst aspects of our team can surface. Your employees look to you for guidance. Make sure you are there.

  6. Provide an outlet for questions and discussion – Sending an email to an anonymous address (where the sender is also anonymous) can help alleviate fear. Have small group meetings, large town hall meetings, or create and manage an online bulletin-board. If you don’t know what the rumors are, you can’t put them to rest.

  7. Train your managers – You can’t do all the work yourself, but your managers will have varying levels of skill handling crisis communication. Make sure you train them to communicate transparently, consistently, and openly. As you know handling rumors are stressful, so ensure your management team has a system of emotional support, too.

  8. Don’t wait for a crisis – build trust every day. If the only time your employees here from you is during times of hardship, then any communication from senior leadership will set the rumors in motion. Communicate goals, successes, and direction consistently every month and every quarter.

  9. Praise publically and punish privately, but do it immediately – when rumors take a nasty turn employees look to their leaders for assurance. Stop malicious behavior immediately and praise the behavior you want to see publically.

  10. Lead by example – you will feel emotional and want to vent during times of stress, it’s only human, but resist doing so at work. Develop a strong emotional network so that during work hours you are the beacon your team needs.

Rumors can spread as quickly as a yawn and undermine your efforts at creating a culture of high performance. Be ready to take charge and manage the story that gets your team working toward the same vision once again.