You hear it, you accept it and you pass it on. You don’t question it or check if it is valid. ‘Martin from finance told me. It must be true!’ you say.

Welcome to the corporate ‘grapevine’, or as some call it the ‘rumour mill’. Information channels where news moves like the wind and spreads like wildfire. The juicier the rumour, the quicker and more widely it will disseminate. As a rumour passes from person to person it morphs – taking on new dimensions, becoming ever more sensational and, probably, moving further and further away
from having any foundation in truth.

The grapevine is a fact of working life. There is no way of elmi inating gossip and rumours at work. Let’s face it, everyone loves the grapevine – across all functions and at all levels in an organization – from directors to floor-sweepers.

Grapevines especially thrive where:

  • There is an absence, deficit or clear inaccuracy in ‘official’ ni formation from the company;
  •  Leaders of functions or business units do not talk to their teams frankly about the company and its performance;
  • Employees simply do not trust the information they are getting from the company – or they feel that information is being withheld;
  • Employees know more (through leaks for example) than the custodians of the ‘official company line’.

Leaders may not like the grapevine in their organization, but eliminating it is like Kenya putting a man on the moon… it just isn’t going to happen!

Managing the corporate grapevine

All of this does not mean that good companies cannot manage the grapevine – maybe not completely, but certainly in a way that can minimize any negative impact on the business.

Companies should ask themselves: “How can we make sure the grapevine does not impact productivity, corporate performance, employee motivation, or our employer brand (people leaving or not joining).”

Here are some ideas:

1. Understand and listen to the grapevine
Without becoming Big Brother figures, leaders should make it their business to understand what is going on in the grapevine. This is not difficult, but requires some homework – Who are the most influential members of the grapevine? Are there informal forums that can be set up to air and discuss the grapevine talk? Basically, find ways of demystifying the grapevine and learning the hot topics in the grapevine at any particular time.

2. Design messages for the recipient and do not be afraid of over-communicating
It is important to clearly frame the key messages to employees. Messages should be employee centered; address the issue from an employee’s perspective by clarifying intent, impact and actions required.

Also, make sure at least some of the messages address the issues that are doing the rounds in the grapevine. Talk to the grapevine’s concerns. Leaders and employees should not be talking past each other.

And don’t forget… people forget. The same message repeated several times, the adoption of a catchphrase, the use of visual devices or logos – all of these will help to embed the message and avoid misunderstanding or a lack of alignment. NOTE: Hasn’t the plastic bag ban caused havoc and isn’t everyone complaining that there was not enough sensitisation? NEMA will tell you that all Kenyans have known for months that this day was coming. They’re right. But did those Kenyans internalize the message? No. Why? Was the message repeated often enough? Were the right and enough channels used? Was the language used in the message appropriate?

3. Have a communications strategy, based on reality and fit for purpose
Understand how employees like to receive their information and use multiple channels.

  • Electronic newsletters have a role for corporate news, but can be infrequent
  • An SMS service provides real time information for employees for very brief updates
  • Unflashy e-mails, for example from a manager to his team, can be highly effective – being immediate, informal and ‘connecting’
  • Informal get-togethers can be powerful, a short address followed by a 15 minute Q&A, then downtime for the team as a group. The key is consistency… the first one might be awkward, but press on!

4. Employee feedback mechanisms
To a company grappling with grapevine issues, simple steps like an open-door policy cost much less but are worth much more than an employee climate survey. Give employees their voice. Let them be heard. It’s sometimes tough at first, employees given their first chance to be speak up can go overboard with outlandish requests etc. But stick with it. Once the concept is established employees will become more objective and conversations will normalize. Sometimes, employees don’t necessarily expect leaders to solve particular problems, they just want to be able to talk and be listened to.

5. Create an environment of openness
When discussing and deciding what to communicate to employees, leaders should ask the question “Why not tell our people about this?”. Too many times leaders operate on the “Why should we tell them?” principle. This is not conducive to containing a grapevine.

Leaders sometimes withhold information from employees (which they can often get from other sources anyway) for no good reason. Just tell them! Is the company having a difficult first half-year? Tell them, and the details… and introduce a scheme to mobilize employees to promote the business. We are all in this together after all. Is there a company lawsuit everyone is reading about in the newspaper? Tell them and give a Q&A. Is the government planning legislation that may negatively impact the business? Talk about it and encourage employees to use their contacts with legislators etc.

But it is not possible to be open about everything.

How do leaders earn and maintain credibility and trust amongst employees when it is simply impossible to tell them everything? It’s tricky, but there will often be situations where leaders are unable to tell employees in advance about issues that will affect them.

Think about a restructuring. The individuals directly impacted will have to be told first privately and maybe the union. But other employees might feel they were the last to know. And that is true to an extent.

In such situations, it is important to tell employees, after the event, why they could not be told before the event. This diffuses anger and disappointment at leaders being secretive. A reasonable employee will usually accept the explanation… after all if they were being retrenched, would they like to read about it on the noticeboard or be engaged one-on-one first?

6. Bring people onside
It is common-sense that most of us are less likely to engage in juicy gossip about people we like than people we dislike or distrust.

Similarly, employees are less likely to engage in grapevine talk that damages the morale, productivity or employer brand of their organization if they are aligned with the company. What does ‘aligned’ mean? Well, the company tells us everything they reasonably can. We know what’s going on. They speak in our language. They listen to us. They sometimes, but not always, act on what we say or ask.

7. Feed the grapevine
When leaders are really good at this stuff, they are so attuned to the grapevine they can use it to their advantage.

Have you ever heard of a ‘controlled leak’? Politicians sometimes let a policy idea slip into the public domain as a rumor just to understand how popular it might be. If it bombs in the ‘grapevine’ they drop it. If it flies, they formally adopt it as policy.

Leaders can use the grapevine in a similar way. For example, union negotiations may not be going well. A rumor can be fed in the grapevine to the effect that management has reached the end of its tether and will start sending employees home if the union does not show more flexibility. This message will reach all intended recipients with the usual lightning speed of the grapevine.