Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Beware of office gossip, but use the grapevine wisely

Many companies discourage talk of politics and religion around the office because of the high potential for disagreements among co-workers or the possibility of offending an office mate.

But there are other topics — in addition to those two hot-button categories — that are considered taboo or at least too risky to tackle with colleagues and clients. Here are a few rules of the road:

Avoid conversations that focus on a pending divorce, someone's home foreclosure, speculating about an affair, salary levels, or any confidential information about the company, its products or clients. These are taboo not just in the office but also in the marketplace. They will take you nowhere.

And medical information is never a topic for in-depth office conversation — whether about yourself or a family member. If you need to discuss a medical secret or any other important life event, find a supportive friend outside of your circle of professionals.

A valuable source of info

The grapevine, however, is inevitable and can be a valuable source of information about the "real" company policies (not just those mentioned in the employee handbook), the current level of service in the customer service department, or who is next in line for an important promotion.

The grapevine can also alert managers to a plan that may not have merit; for instance, a new procedure that may have flaws only front-line workers can assess.

Smart, high-level executives and board members many times have "ears" in the company who can tell them the issues of the day. High-level professionals don't wait for the news to come to them because they rightly believe that if they do, the news not only will be old, but also will have been embellished beyond recognition.

All in all, the grapevine is a necessary tool that should be used judiciously. Keep in mind that if you become overly sympathetic to a co-worker's poor performance review, or get too close to the office "gossip," it may come back to haunt you or hurt your career.

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