Managing Gossip in the Firehouse

By Linda Willing

Have you heard the latest? Such a lead is bound to get people's attention, as most people are eager for current information, whether it concerns department policy or personal relationships on the job. Gossip is a fact of life, but as a company officer you have a responsibility for managing it.

Most people gossip to a greater or lesser degree and this is not all bad. At its best, gossip can be a form of social networking and an informal organizational communications system. Such "good gossip" might include sharing information about coworkers' families (a son gets married, a daughter graduates) or to clarify rules and norms within the organization.

But most gossip isn't good. Its intention may or may not be malicious, but the effect is usually negative. Gossip (whether through word of mouth or via technology such as e-mail, texting, Twitter, etc.) is a system that encourages speculation, misinformation, exaggeration, and even downright lies.

In the world of gossip, information is power, and the more dirt that information includes, the better. And the more the information gets passed along, the less reliable (but often more compelling) it is. It's like the old kids' game of "telephone" — even if you're trying to pass the information along in a completely accurate way, changes naturally happen as the words pass from person to person.

Stage is set
Gossip can be particularly dangerous in an environment like the fire service, where people work closely together and have inherent interests in each other. Firefighters also have access to information about their coworkers — a phone call from a mysterious woman at 10 p.m., a late night confession of a drinking problem. Combine interest and information with opportunity — a work environment with ample down time — and the stage is set for a workplace that may be inundated and even driven by gossip.

When gossip is out of control, real dangers emerge. Misinformation is the most obvious — people are not clear about what the truth is, whether it concerns a departmental policy or the status of someone's personal life. Perception that is guided by gossip and rumors rather than facts and direct contact with people can damage teamwork, morale, and even cause safety problems at emergency scenes.

The effect of gossip on teamwork can be significant. A culture of gossip damages trust in a number of ways: 

  •  Groups gang up on individuals, particularly when those individuals are not around to defend themselves.
  • Subcultures form around a "them and us" division among people who should hold common goals (such as suppression vs. prevention, A Shift vs. B Shift, etc.)
  • Leaders who gossip create fear and uncertainty among their subordinates and are seen as unprofessional and untrustworthy.
  • Individuals learn that as long as someone else is targeted for gossip, they themselves are safe, thus encouraging the group to pick on members who are most vulnerable or isolated.

Gossip is inevitable, but it must be managed. Studies show that without control, once gossip begins about an individual it tends to become more and more malicious and distorted unless attention is directed elsewhere. The "can you top this" competitive culture of the fire service only increases this tendency.

So how can you, as a company officer or other leader in the organization, manage gossip under your watch? A couple simple guidelines will help:

  • First, pay attention. Know what is being said and about whom. Observe how the group handles gossip. Do they escalate every conversation or do they self-correct and move on to other topics?
  • Try defusing gossip through a technique called fogging. This involves making a general statement that provides an alternative conversational path, without directly confronting the speaker. For example, if a group is trashing someone because he accidentally damaged a piece of equipment, you could say, "Well, we all make mistakes sometimes, right?"
  • Humor used appropriately can break the gossip cycle. In the example above, you could say, "I certainly understand why you're making such a big deal about this, because after all, it is the very first time anyone has ever made a mistake around here." 
  • Change the subject. If gossip is getting out of control, it may be a sure sign your crew has too much time on its hands. Initiate a training exercise. Go drive streets. Paint the kitchen. 
  • Hold people accountable. Don't be afraid to confront someone as necessary. You can say, "That's a serious statement. Do you know that for a fact? What is your source of information on that?"

Most importantly, be a good example when it comes to workplace gossip. You'll never eliminate it entirely, but you can model fair and professional treatment of others through both your words and actions. It is your job to make sure gossip does not damage teamwork and ultimately create problems with safety and fulfillment of your mission of service. The example you set as a leader will go a long way toward keeping gossip in its proper place.

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