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Workplace Gossip an Issue? Slow the Rumor Mill

Workplace Gossip an Issue? Slow the Rumor Mill

By: John Rossheim, Monster Senior Contributing Writer

You've heard the stories — or more to the point, read them in major media outlets: An employee blogs, tweets, yammers or otherwise verbally ambushes his employer on the Internet, complaining about working conditions, whispering outloud about upcoming layoffs or mounting a world premiere of a video documenting alleged malfeasance. This unauthorized communication goes viral, the PR department is a day late and a million dollars short with damage control, and heads roll.

In this age when millions of workers have in their hands the means to trash-talk their employers to an audience of billions, is there anything that companies can do to forestall or contain the damage from an outrageous rumor or a painful truth not ready for prime time? There is, if you recognize the realities of the situation and build an employee relations and communications strategy from there.

"The structure of the Internet allows factions to be created," says Nicholas DiFonzo, professor of psychology at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "Birds of a feather flock more and more together, and social media allows this to happen more easily."

But what if you shepherd your own flock of cyber-boosters, employees acting in enlightened self-interest to promote the interests of their company? It can be done, but all too often isn't.

The Old-School Approach: Forbid Chatter and Refuse Comment

Whether due to inertia or ignorance, many companies are simply sticking to their longstanding policies of forbidding nearly all their employees to speak publicly about the company in any medium.

"The overwhelming sentiment in my studies was that employers shouldn't comment on rumors if they don't want to fan the flames," says DiFonzo. But when employees do speak without authorization, perhaps from an anonymous online soapbox, more and more of their coworkers are getting the message, as do shareholders and other stakeholders.

And stakeholders have good reason to listen, because renegade employee communications sometimes break important news about the company. "If you hear a rumor of a layoff in your company, I would lay money on that rumor," says DiFonzo.

Still, advisors to many corporations believe that even in 2010, the way to quell employee rumors is to create a list of "don'ts" and try to convince employees to go along. "In addition to employee training on Internet and email use, there should be a policy and rules on the use of social media," says Joseph Paranac Jr., a labor and employment lawyer with LeClairRyan in Newark, N.J. Employers should reinforce that employees must not comment on internal matters or make disparaging comments about the company, Paranac says.

Cultivate Employees as Brand Advocates

Legions of firms simply use technology to bar use of social media sites on company networks. Employers do so at the risk of alienating workers, says Jennifer Benz, chief strategist at Benz Communications in San Francisco. "I think blocking a site like Facebook is like telling employees they can never make a personal phone call at work. It's treating employees like children."

The trick is to turn employees' use of social media to the company's advantage, says Dallas Lawrence, chair of the digital and social media practice group at Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, D.C. "Many companies are telling employees what not to do, rather than making them online ambassadors," says Lawrence. "That is a sad misunderstanding of the branding power that employees could have if they were trained and empowered."

Embrace Social Media to Counter Negative Rumors

Start by letting your employees know that you're savvy about social networking, and all that that implies. When you brief your staff on your social media strategy and ask them to help execute the plan, "it's also a warm and fuzzy way to say, ‘You'd better be careful about what you post, because we're watching,' " says Lawrence.

Then commit resources to a program of active listening online. "Have your ear to the ground and quickly respond to rumors, especially rumors that are going viral," says DiFonzo. "The idea of complete controlling the message is passé; any information that gets out there can mutate."

Part of your social media communications program should be based on technology. Free tools are available for monitoring your company's online reputation in a variety of online media. Paid services will aggregate mentions of your company into a single report from many online media.

Finally, be ready for the inevitable day when bad news — or just an ugly rumor — is born on the lips of an employee whose interests aren't aligned with the company's. "You need to train employees now to be able to unleash them later to counter any negative communications, to put a disgruntled worker in context as a sour apple," says Lawrence. "The damage is exponentially greater if there's no positive pushback online."