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Some employers get tough on workplace gossip

Policies to quash such chatter, including job termination, may boost morale and the bottom line.

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Just a year ago, the atmosphere in Sam Chapman's small public relations firm was often tense.

"We had information leaks, we had disgruntledness, we had competitors finding things out, and we had sniping about senior management policies," says Mr. Chapman, CEO of Empower Public Relations in Chicago. "People would stop talking when you walked by."

A life coach identified the problem: gossip. Determined to elevate the tone, Chapman took dramatic steps. He fired three employees for gossiping. He also established a strict policy, turning the whole office into a no-gossip zone.

In workplaces everywhere, gossip remains a daily fact of life. Around water coolers, behind closed doors, and in e-mails, employees whisper about everything from office romances to rumored mergers and layoffs. Defenders insist that this chatter is often harmless, giving workers a window on legitimate news. Critics charge that it can be insidious and malicious, lowering morale.

"Gossip can be a problem if unaddressed, or it can play a useful role," says Dennis Reina, author of "Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace." "It can be a beacon in letting leaders know that there are issues that need to be dealt with in appropriate, constructive ways."

Chapman defines gossip as "negative communications outside the presence of the subject of the communication." Calling it "a productivity killer," he adds, "It hurts the gossiper and the gossipee. Gossipers are wrecking their own reputation by talking about others. Gossipees are hurt because they're being maligned."

To quash such talk, Chapman devised a policy for his staff of 17: "If I hear you gossiping about somebody, we send you back to the person about whom you were gossiping and you tell what you said. That dispels all the false information."

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