The meeting was going well until a name was dropped. 

The ensuing chuckles and eye rolls suggested some kind of infamy or company lore.

The only comment made was less than flattering.  And then the conversation continued as if nothing happened at all.

But in reality something very septic just happened.  Something that often goes undetected in organizations that can undermine the formation of a healthy team and building of a vibrant business.

They were talking about a former employee in a negative way.  In doing so, they were ingesting a uniquely noxious form of gossip that can make a culture toxic.   

It’s understandable that a team with shared experiences will have all kinds of stories of people and situations.  However the way in which those stories are retold are rather important.  Especially the negative ones.

Here are five ways negative gossip about former employees can derail your team building leadership.   

It normalizes toxic conversation

Gossip in most any culture is seen as toxic.  To talk negatively about someone outside their presence, especially in a group setting, is a show of disregard and contempt.  It is a malevolent form of conversation that never brings good returns to an organization.  It is not edifying to those listening to it, because it is sharing something that is not theirs to share.  It’s like stealing someone’s dignity and showing the goods off in an alley amongst gang members.

Gossip usually involves exaggeration, misinformation, incomplete perspectives and unproven theories.  It creates a vacuum of both trust and relationship.  Sometimes it takes pushing back on it when it happens to keep it from becoming normalized in the team culture. 

It’s a mark of immaturity

There are elementary school lessons being violated – such as “if you can’t say something nice about someone don’t say anything at all”.  Leaders who mire in the negative minutiae of personalities end up straying from the principles that keep a team anchored and productive.   

If you want to build a sophomoric culture akin to high school, then gossip away!  If however you desire to create an environment with emotional maturity and good judgement, then don’t accept the cheap entertainment of former employee gossip.  Here is a play on words, but if you frequently belittle someone behind their back, you’ll be little in stature among those whom you are trying to lead.  Guaranteed.

It is a breach of confidentiality

Especially if there is a personnel action involved, any discussion of the matter in public is a violation of laws governing employee confidentiality and could be subject to legal action were the matters found out.  Which because of the very nature of gossip, is a likely possibility.  “Word get’s out” whenever gossip gets in.  If you give it, you’ll need to be prepared to take it. 

If there is not a protection of confidences in your organization, there can never be a confidence and propriety amongst team members.  Which brings us to the next casualty: trust.

It erodes trust

It subtly communicates that anyone could be fair game for being ‘talked about.’  That mistakes are memorialized instead of learned from, and ridicule becomes an unspoken method of control.  It breeds a type of shame and insecurity that populates your unspoken attitudes with ridicule instead of respect and and actually demeans those present, even though the gossip is about somebody outside the team.  There is nothing in negative gossip about former employees that is innocuous.  It affects everyone who listens to it and eats away at trust within the community like a driving rain in a gravel pit.

It’s a waste of time

Unless your product is triviality and your business depends upon a high volume of meaningless words, negative gossip about former employees (or any kind) is a waste of time that is bad for business.  Not only does it waste time but it can drain emotional vitality from team members making it all the more difficult to be productive. 

Three Alternatives to Negative Gossip

Instead of indulging the poisonous banter of gossip, here are three ways to redeem the moments when former employees and negative situations enter into a team conversation.

Focus on principles not personalities

Focus on the lessons learned, systems changed and principles embraced that came from the former employee situation.  Maybe it resulted in new hiring guidelines, or a different communication structure.  If business leaders will pay attention to the principles instead of the shaking-my-head fondling of a negative employee experience, they will empower themselves to lead beyond it to a better day for everyone.

Cultivate respect for persons

Have a zero tolerance policy for negativity, bullying, drama, gossip, or toxic energy of any kind. Let encouragement and support be the lead team ethic. If you disagree or have an opposing viewpoint to share, do it with respect, honor and from a place of compassion. Spirited debate about ideas or concepts is awesome, personal attacks are not – especially if you are attacking someone not present nor even a part of the team.  

Keep performance protected

Healthy teams will set the bar for acceptable levels of performance and contribution.  If there are issues, those are best handled one-to-one in person.   Celebrate positive contributions – of present and former team members.  That reinforces what real value looks like.  But when it comes to the negatives, by far it’s best to avoid the guile, disdain and dishonor that comes from gossipy banter in a public form.  By the way this holds true for email and informal communications alike.   

Again, toxic behavior yields toxic culture and toxic culture won’t produce healthy outcomes.  Gossiping about former employees in a negative way is a malignant team activity.  Avoid it, call it out and redirect it. 

Let the negative past be a part of your learning history.  Refuse to give it a continued presence in your promising future.