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How to deal with rumors on the grapevine

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

If managers and supervisors don’t attend to the communication needs of their staff, there is no vacuum of information. Instead, the informal avenue of rumors grows, frequently putting a destructive slant on organizational happenings when employees are uncertain. Some people say that up to 70% of the information employees receive is via the grapevine.

Information via the grapevine invariably moves much faster than through formal communication channels. This is its greatest attribute. Emails have now joined the grapevine communication channels, making it even faster.

The 'grapevine' is the informal communication network found in every organization. The term can be traced back to the United States Civil War in the 1860s. Since battlefronts moved frequently, army telegraph wires were strung loosely from tree to tree across battlefields, somewhat like wires used to support grapevines. The wires were used to carry telegraph messages created in Morse code (the electronic alphabet, invented in 1844) because the telephone wasn’t invented until 1876. Since the lines often were strung hastily during battle, and messages were composed in a hurry, the resulting communication tended to be garbled and confusing. Soon, any rumor was said to have been heard 'on the grapevine'.

There are four types of grapevine rumors:

  1. Wish fulfillment - identifying the wishes and hopes of employees.

  2. 'Bogey rumors' - exaggerating employees' fears and concerns.

  3. 'Wedge-drivers' - aggressive, unfriendly and damaging. They split groups and dissolve allegiances.

  4. 'Home-stretchers' - anticipating final decisions or announcements. They tend to fill the gap during times of ambiguity.

Research shows that grapevine information tends to be about 80% accurate. Since many rumors start from someone's account of an actual event, there are strong elements of truth in many rumors. However, grapevine information often contains big errors as people put their own interpretation onto an event or information they have seen, and then pass it on in a process of partial or selective recall.

Why do people spread rumors? Humans are social animals – we need to talk to others. Chat about others helps to strengthen existing relationships. Besides entertainment value, gossiping can raise people's self esteem – we feel more important by getting information first and by the interest it creates.

It is rare to find people at different levels discussing rumors or gossiping with each other. When two people share a rumor or gossip it has the effect of putting them on a relatively equal footing.

The grapevine can play an important part in the ‘management by walking around’ approach. When managers move around the office without a particular objective, they can pick up relevant rumors. This information would not have become available if the manager had stayed in their office all day.

Managers can sometimes purposely send messages through the grapevine to test the likely reaction to a possible management decision. This can allow feedback to take place and adjustments made before final decisions are made. Thus the grapevine can contribute to a more inclusive workplace.

How to minimize destructive rumors

PR practitioners can expect to encounter harmful rumors on the organizational grapevine quite often – about once a week on average, according to research. Although not always harmful, rumors can reduce employee productivity, tarnish personal reputations and interfere with organizational communication. Rumors obviously abound during restructuring and retrenchment processes – when employees are nervous about their jobs they waste time talking about the rumors and their work rate falls. External rumors are known to have hit sales, damaged corporate reputations and caused share prices to fall.

Most rumors are concerned with common organizational changes such as possible mergers and acquisitions, new aspects of mergers and acquisition processes that are already under way, changes in staffing, retrenchment plans and restructurings.

Research conducted with 74 experienced PR professionals in corporate positions and consultancies, suggested that about a third of rumors related to personnel changes such as a senior executive leaving to join the opposition, about staff changes due to a shake-up in management and about changes caused by a merger or acquisition.

A further third of rumors were about job satisfaction and security. Job satisfaction rumors comprised hearsay about unhappy employees, dissatisfaction with management and transfer of duties. Job security rumors were about lay-offs caused by downsizing, restructuring, plant closing etc. The balance comprised speculation and gossip on a variety of topics.

Plans can be activated to prevent and reduce rumors, although rumors are relatively difficult to grapple with. The important thing is to maintain a good communication flow using several alternative avenues to convey the same message. It is helpful even to say that information is incomplete or discussions are in progress, and staff will be informed as soon as there is progress information available. It is futile to wait until everything is in place before issuing a statement because staff quickly notice unusual happenings and they know when unusual requests for information are received from head office. They will speculate about it – usually with some paranoia.

Preventative measures should include keeping staff regularly, fully and honestly informed of planned changes through a range of tailored formal and informal communication avenues such as emails and face-to-face meetings at various levels. Sometimes external stakeholders also need to receive timely messages to prevent a harmful rumor from spreading outside the organization.

An early warning system is a good way to reduce harmful rumors that are already circulating: staff in various locations can be informally appointed to monitor and report on early indications of rumors. Depending on the nature of the rumors, similar distribution channels to those in the previous paragraph could be established. In addition, a rumor ‘hotline’ – an internal telephone service or email address – could be set up to receive questions from employees about rumors in circulation.

PR staff could prepare messages on the issues for management and supervisors to communicate in response. The messages should be tailored to specific audiences and need to be couched in the everyday language of the workplace, not in ‘management-speak’.

The appropriate manager should confirm true rumors or true parts of rumors to staff as soon as possible. Management should avoid playing word games with the truth or parts of the truth in order to minimize bad news. Their credibility will suffer massively if they try this. However, research in 2004 by Towers Perrin HR Services found that 55% of workers interviewed agreed that “My organization tries too hard to put a positive spin on issues in its communication to employees.”

Only 21% disagreed. As the sample was relatively small, 1,000 workers, the finding can’t necessarily be extrapolated too widely; nevertheless, a lesson is there.

False rumors should be refuted by an authoritative source. For instance, the chief financial officer should deal with a rumor about cash flow, and the human resources manager should deal with a rumor about pay changes. Sometimes a respected external source is best placed to authoritatively refute a rumor. The refutations should be clear, strong, consistent and truthful. No response or a ‘no comment’ response only add to further damaging speculation, so avoid this as much as possible.

US research showed that a reasonably effective approach to minimizing rumors is to provide structuring to uncertainty. For instance, by explaining the procedures by which planned changes will be decided, the employer gives employees the comfort of knowing the broad guidelines that will be used. Similarly, telling them when an official announcement will be made at least provides them with some structure or stability of intent, even if the content of the announcement is not known to them.

Another technique, requiring your professional judgment, is merely to ignore the rumor and allow it to be overtaken by events.

Experience in the workplace showed that a punitive approach didn’t work, i.e. to search for and/or seek to punish people who started or spread the rumor.

 

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.

 

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