Q: I work in a small medical clinic. We have a few people who whisper to each other quite frequently. When a person walks in on this behavior or it occurs while you are working next to a person, it's very uncomfortable. How should this be handled?
D. D., West Alexandria, OH
A: Ask a room full of people, "If two colleagues are in the same area as you and they're whispering to each other, what goes through your mind?" Invariably when I ask this question during a business etiquette seminar, I get one answer: "They're gossiping about me."
Usually, it's innocent: They may simply be trying to keep their voices down to avoid bothering colleagues with their conversation. In your medical office environment patient confidentiality may be another valid reason why coworkers are whispering. Unfortunately, what they're actually doing and what they're perceived to be doing may be two very different things. If the perception is that they're whispering for the "wrong" reason, then it engenders negative feelings among coworkers. Whispering in and of itself is the culprit here, not the intentions of the colleagues. By its very nature whispering is exclusionary and almost always misconstrued as gossiping. Conversations of a private nature should be held where they won't be overheard.
The solution to your situation is two-fold. If you're friendly with one of the whisperers, talk to that person off-line about the problem and its effect on coworkers which may remedy the immediate situation. Take it one step further and ask management to discuss the broader issues with the staff, both the need for establishing a place to have conversations regarding patient information and the perception of whispering as gossiping.
Gossip is one of the most destructive forces present in the workplace. It's a form of rudeness which leads to mistrust, suspicion, frustration, and stress, and can result in lower productivity, profits, retention and, if word gets out about the toxic environment, recruiting. More and more companies have recognized the insidious effects of gossip and are instituting "No Gossip" policies. Reports from companies that have done so indicate that the workplace environment has improved markedly once the policy was put in place.