Rumor has it that managers at Shaw's Supermarkets started an employee newsletter called The Rumor Buster. "If you can't lick em, join 'em" seems to be the philosophy behind this clever communications strategy.
Rumors fly whenever employees are worried or a change is underway. And rumors usually exaggerate the problem and spread misinformation. The occasion for Shaw's to start their newsletter was (as rumor has it) the acquisition of another supermarket chain. Whenever such transitions are underway, employees do a lot of talking because they are naturally quite concerned about possible changes that could affect their work or even their jobs.
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And much of what people say is nothing more than the stuff of rumors. "Did you hear they are going to close half the stores?" "Well, I heard that salaries are going to be cut." And so forth.
The actual truth is almost always far more favorable than the rumors, so it helps morale and gets everyone refocused on doing a good job to share accurate information and squash alarmist rumors. An in-house newsletter (or electronic newsletter if you want to be modern about it) is a very good way to set the record straight.
How big an organization do you have to be to need a Rumor Buster newsletter of your own? A lot smaller than most managers realize. I don't think there is a single business with more than one person in it that does not suffer from rumoritis. I just talked with the head of a business with a dozen employees about an interesting rumor started by one of them. It concerned misappropriation of funds by the owner of the business. The rumor has it that he is taking large cash payments that are not being properly reported on the company's books.
Now that's the sort of rumor that can be very bad for business. He was quite upset to hear that, while he was out on the road working hard to bring in more business, the employees were busy talking about how they thought he wasn't working enough and was getting overpaid.
Where had this rumor come from? Well, a new employee who was helping with bookkeeping had started it. She didn't know much about the business but had lots of suspicions, most of them carried over from a previous job where perhaps things were not always as they seemed. Because other employees knew she was involved in disbursements, they blindly believed her stories.
What happens to productivity when a nasty rumor like that circulates? What is the impact on communications? On trust? Rumors may seem like minor irritants, but in fact they can have a significant negative impact on the business--even (or perhaps especially) in smaller businesses, which can't afford to have distracted or disgruntled employees.
What to do about nasty rumors? The best immediate response is the one the supermarket chain took--to share detailed and accurate information right away. May as well open those books enough to show the employees you aren't salting away money in some Enron-style accounts. Whatever you are taking in compensation, it is probably at or below the average for heads of businesses such as yours--and they can't really start much of a rumor about your getting paid competitively for your work. That, at any rate, was the advice I gave the poor executive whose new employee was sandbagging him with nasty rumors about improper payouts.
The other action to take is longer-term but more lasting in its impact--to invest a little more time and effort into building healthy ongoing communications with all employees. This is always a tough challenge for busy managers, but at the very least a monthly Q&A with employees is essential. Advertise it as a time for them to ask you about anything that is on their mind, and promise to be as open as you reasonably can. Then instead of whispering their suspicions to each other, your employees can voice them out loud to you--and give you the opportunity to set the record straight.
And rumor has it the record needs some straightening, even in your business. Why, just the other day somebody told me that you'd...
Alex Hiam is a trainer, consultant and author of several popular books on business management, marketing and entrepreneurship, including Streetwise Motivating & Rewarding Employees, The Vest-Pocket CEOand other popular books.