Veterinary practices, like any business, struggle with suppressing office gossip. And while a little chitchat may seem harmless, it’s a force to be reckoned with. Gossip can ruin job satisfaction by causing team members to feel bullied or shut out. It can also hurt client relationships, as clients can sense team members’ negativity. Gossip can even affect the bottom line when morale falls so low that no one is focused on what’s important—the patient. So if gossip exists in your practice, it’s time to eliminate it once and for all. Here’s how you can put a no-gossip policy in place at your practice.
Step 1: Spell it out
Every practice should have a no-gossip policy as part of its employee manual. And a simple “No gossiping” under your personnel policies won’t cut it. An effective no-gossip policy needs to define exactly what gossip is. Webster’s Dictionary defines gossip as one who chatters idly about others; a trifling rumor of a personal nature; to take part in or spread gossip. But your definition can be different, more specific to your practice. For example, your definition may include acceptable and unacceptable behaviors of team members, including talking to co-workers about situations that neither party can do anything about.
It’s also important to include the definition of tattling within your policy. Many team members have a hard time telling the difference between tattling and complying with a no-gossip policy. Pointing out a co-worker’s gossiping isn’t tattling; instead it’s reporting a policy violation. Compliance, or reporting violations, is often difficult for team members because they develop relationships with their co-workers and therefore feel somewhat loyal to them. They’d rather not jeopardize the relationships they’ve worked so hard to build by calling attention to a friend’s violation. However, the key to a no-gossip policy is for the team to place its loyalty where it should be—with the practice. So make it clear: It’s each team member’s responsibility to carry out practice policies, which means reporting violations.
Last, but not least, a policy must include the consequences of gossiping. These consequences can be an extension of the disciplinary procedures you already have in place, or they can be more severe. Your decision depends on how seriously you want your policy to be taken.
Step 2: Train the team
When first instituting your no-gossip policy, it’s important to present the policy to the entire team, including practice owners and veterinarians. This shows team members the importance of the policy as it applies to everyone. Use this meeting to focus on how the policy will improve practice culture, elevate moods, and increase production. It’s important to remain upbeat and positive, so consider leaving the disciplinary portion of the policy out of this meeting. Including any negative aspects, especially in a group setting, will likely sour the mood and make it harder for team members to believe that the no-gossip policy is actually a good thing.
Once the group meeting is over, meet with each team member individually. Give them a copy of the policy and go over it again, this time covering disciplinary procedures. Discussing disciplinary actions and the policy itself in a more personal setting allows team members to pose any questions that they might not feel comfortable asking in front of co-workers. Take time to answer any questions and to get their verbal or written commitment to carry out the policy. Role-play with them if necessary so they know what to say to another staff member who’s trying to involve them in gossip.
Once you’ve trained your team, incorporate the policy into your new-employee orientation training. By doing this, each new team member will learn about the no-gossip policy before he or she even starts working and establishing relationships with other team members. Also, the policy is more significant because time was taken to explain it, how it works, and what the employee’s responsibility is in upholding it. When the new employee begins working with the team, he or she will see the no-gossip policy in action and understand it. Taking these steps will raise the level of importance of this policy within the practice.
Step 3: Enforce the policy
Of course, the difficult part comes when you need to enforce the no-gossip policy. This is best left to the person who handles discipline—usually the practice manager. If that’s you, following a team member’s first offense, you should sit the employee down privately and review the no-gossip policy. Give another copy of the written policy to the employee for future reference. Because it’s the first time you’re speaking to the employee, assume there’s some confusion that needs to be cleared up. An example of dialogue could be something like: “Mary, I’m not sure I’ve adequately explained our no-gossip policy or its importance to you. Let’s review the policy together and see if there is any confusion.” Go ahead and read the policy to Mary. Stop along the way to ask if she understands or has questions. Ask her to give you at least two examples of gossip that could occur in your practice. Be sure you take notes during or after your conversation so you can refer to them later.
If another instance occurs, this is a more serious offense. You’ve already spoken to Mary once and cleared up any confusion about the policy, yet she violated the policy again. This time, try saying something like: “Mary, on Nov. 3, I met with you and we reviewed the gossip policy. You gave me two really good examples of what it means to gossip so I know you understood it. Can you help me to understand the comments you made to Beth?”
Give her time to respond. The best way for a team member to accept responsibility is to give her a way out. At this point, you don’t want to accuse. You simply want to understand why Mary thinks it’s OK to involve Beth in these conversations. Maybe she doesn’t understand that her comments are really gossip. Maybe she just wants to see what will happen if she gossips. Whatever the case, be sure to follow up each instance of gossip that is reported or overheard. Only then will the team realize that gossip will not be tolerated.
Be sure to explain to Mary what the consequence will be should she gossip again. It may be a written warning, probation, or even termination, depending on your policy. Simply tell Mary that although she might be tempted to blame Beth for this, it’s really her own fault and she needs to accept responsibility for her actions. Remind Mary that Beth may not even be the team member who reported her. It could have easily been another co-worker who overheard the conversation. Let Mary know that you’ll be in contact with the entire team and will know if she ends up giving anyone a hard time about it. Make it clear that such actions will not reflect well upon Mary.
If you’re serious about instituting a no-gossip policy, you must enforce it each time it’s violated. Once you begin doing this, it’ll catch on and you’ll see fewer violations. And eventually, the policy will be carried out effortlessly because the team believes in it, likes the positive impact it has on the practice culture, and won’t tolerate gossip any longer. Although instituting and enforcing an effective no-gossip policy can be a challenge, the rewards received from a stress-free and productive practice are well worth it.
Marie E. McNamara, MBA, CVPM, is the hospital administrator at New Hartford Animal Hospital in New Hartford, N.Y.