Safety Culture / Training/Incentives

“I heard it through the grapevine…”- Generating Rumors is an unsafe sport

May 3, 2012
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The “rumor-mill” or the informal communication system can be detrimental in a workplace culture and to any safety program. We recognize the power of the “Communication Loss” syndrome.

                  Things to Remember

Regular ongoing communication

Unverified information is unacceptable
Manage by “walking around” and talking to employees. 
Opinion Leaders…seek them out. Tap into the grapevine.
React; do not ignore rumors
Straightforward, honest communication

Most of us, at some point in our education, have participated in communication exercises. In one such exercise, a statement or story is passed from one person to another until the entire group has received the message. In most cases, by the time the story or statement reaches the last person, it is totally different than when it was first repeated. This is how most rumors work.

Rumors and gossip are much alike. Rumors have more of an organizational basis and gossip is normally directed toward a person. But they both are something we should all avoid. Engaging in the generation of rumors and gossip is detrimental to all. They breed an environment of distrust and an unsettled workforce. Trust in the workplace is already fragile. Rumors only add to instability. When this happens, safety is at risk.

Especially in these times of economic uncertainty, the workplace is ripe for generating rumors. People are worried; they want to know what is happening. Anything new in the workplace is suspect and prey to non-acceptance. If workers do not know what is happening or do not know the details of a new process or policy, they attempt to guess or take what little they know, pass it along, and it becomes distorted. A rumor is unverified information accepted as fact. We often give rumors credence because it’s close to what we already believe.

Safety communication: Leave no one out of the loop

Even before the economy turned and things were relatively going well in industry, we recognized that before any new safety program/process was added, it needed to be thoroughly communicated to the entire work population of a facility. As a key part of the implementation of our behavioral/cultural process, we insist that we address all employees (even if we have to do it in work shifts). We give them all the facts of what is being done, what will be done, what they can expect and ensure them that everyone will have input and be involved.

What to do

Still, the best-laid plans must contend with “human nature,” and rumors and gossip are part and parcel of being human. But there are things you can do to minimize rumor-mongering and gossiping:

  • Be vigilant in keeping the communication flow open. Regular, ongoing communication to the entire workplace population is very important. People want to be informed, whether it is good or bad news. Don’t let your employees guess at what is happening or what a new process/policy is about. Use every source you have to reach all employees with regular updates.
  • Set a policy of non-acceptance of rumoring or gossiping. Not participating in the rumor-mill is another good practice to strive for.
  • “Walk about,” talk to employees and learn firsthand what is happening and being said in the facility.
  • Build trust. Workers feel good if their managers take an interest in their jobs and their opinions and insights.
  • Identify your “opinion leaders.” They are usually very visible and vocal. They are a very important resource in the communication process. Make them a part of the communication loop of verified information. They can help in the accuracy of what is passed to the workforce.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of rumors. When you learn about rumors, you need to deal with them immediately. Ignoring rumors only fuels suspicions and reckless speculation. Don’t give credence to rumors by letting them go unaddressed. Rumors are a distraction and add to uncertainty and stress in the workplace.
  • Be honest, open and straightforward. Careful thought must be put into the message to the workforce.
  • Do not ad-lib. Emotions and opinions can leak into what really must be said. If there is uncertainty in a situation, or if all the factual information is not available, tell employees that all the details are not known. Assure them that nothing is being hidden and as soon as everything is known to you, it will be passed to them.

While “need to know” may seem like a priority, understand that employees do need to know!

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