I Heard It Through the Grapevine

Rumors and gossip can pose problems for an organization. However, communicating through the grapevine can be done in a beneficial manner.

I Heard It Through the Grapevine

Thanks to Marvin Gaye, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” entered into popular culture with the release of his 1968 hit song.

The “grapevine” is probably the most common informal communication process in the workplace. Every office has at least one, if not many more, employee-generated grapevines that are usually based on hearsay, rumor and quite often facts that management may not want the employees to know.

There are also supervisor generated grapevines in the workplace that work on essentially the same principles as employee generated ones. People tend to believe information passed along a grapevine because rumors often match what they have already assumed about a given situation.

Quite often, rumors also feed insecurity while filling in the gaps around known facts. Because grapevines often spread inaccurate information and bypass the formal communication structure, learning how to deal with the “grapevine” is an important part of effective communication. 

The grapevine, which in the past may have consisted of talk around the proverbial water cooler, has now expanded to the internet. Employees are bombarded with information. They never quite know what is true and what is not. Some commentators have called the current time – the post truth era.

Hearsay and rumors can affect both productivity and trust in the workplace. The spread of false or adulterated information can pose problems for an organization. 

Case Study: Who to Believe

Sydney works as a management analyst in the budget department and has a close friend in the accounting department. Sydney also plays on the division softball team and casually chats with a number of employees in her division.

Recently, Sydney overheard her boss discussing a workload analysis of all division employees. Her friend in accounting told her that the division’s revenue has been steadily declining for six months.

Sydney starts to assume that employees will be laid off. She passes this on to other employees, and when she hears their similar concerns, she becomes even more convinced.

A few days later, the division manager gathers employees to reassure them that things are fine. He does not mention the rumored layoffs.

What should Sydney believe: rumors and informal information or the manager’s statements? A month later, four employees are laid off.

The main danger of grapevine-style communication processes is that much of the information will be factually inaccurate. Some information may be difficult, if not impossible, to verify. However, there are also advantages to grapevine communication in the workplace.

Advantages of Grapevine Communication

  1. Information can spread rapidly. 
  2. Supervisors can receive feedback more quickly than through formal channels.
  3. Employees will start talking to one another more often and at greater length. Employees who share views will experience a sense of unity. 
  4. Employees will be able to use the grapevine as an emotional outlet for their frustrations.
  5. Employees have a way to communicate when there are no effective or trusted formal communication processes in place. 

Disadvantages of Grapevine Communication

  1. Partial or inaccurate information based largely on rumors may be widely transmitted. 
  2. Employees’ work productivity may be hampered when they spend so much time talking.
  3. Widespread hostility toward management may result.

Using the Grapevine to Your Advantage

The grapevine can be helpful when supervisors understand how to use it to their advantage. If you consider the grapevine an opportunity to learn what employees think, you can use what you’ve learned to specifically deal with employee concerns.

In the above scenario, the division manager did not mention the approaching layoff. If he knew about the layoff and denied it, employees might never trust him again. If he was aware that a layoff was possible, then he lost an opportunity to be straightforward with employees and build trust by addressing their concerns.

A few years ago, a workplace with a significant layoff approaching asked me to help manage relationships with employees during what was expected to be a stressful transition. On the day that I arrived, the first person I met was an employee who greeted me with, “Oh, you must be here to work on the layoff.”

I told the head manager what I had heard, and he seemed genuinely surprised. I asked him, “How much do employees know about the upcoming layoff?” He responded, “We haven’t told them anything. We’re protecting them, because they won’t be able to handle the news.”

The first thing we did after that was find out what rumors were going around the workplace. Next, we swiftly implemented a communication plan to deal directly with the rumors by explaining to employees what was going to happen. Despite the negative nature of the news, the more informed the employees became the more they trusted what was being told to them.

Conclusion

Employees can usually handle bad news when they are being told the truth. When there is no information being provided by management, employees often create their own versions of the truth. The best way to deal with the grapevine is to confront it as directly and as soon as possible. Dismissing rumors, as mere nuisances, will undermine management. As far as many employees are concerned, those rumors might as well be the truth. Instead, understanding what information is circulating through the grapevine can help you plan a successful communication strategy for employees and supervisors.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email info@jsafed.com or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.