Gossip again and you're fired

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Last Updated Jul 7, 2010 5:42 AM EDT

Not so long ago, Sean Silverthorne posted on 37signals, a company where employees are encouraged to keep office interruptions to a minimum. That was considered unusual enough. So imagine working at U.S.-based hedge fund Bridgewater Associates.

There, boss Ray Dalio has apparently banned office gossip. (And unless he's changed radically since this 2009 profile, he's not a joyless man.)

In Dalio's 83-page discourse on employment and life, Principal No. 11 is: "Never say anything about a person you wouldn't say to him directly. If you do, you are a slimy weasel." Employees caught gossiping three times will be fired.

It's not difficult to imagine why the head of a $75 billion hedge fund in the current economic climate might like to keep naysayers at bay, especially if he's discouraging mean, backstabbing bitchiness at work. But this is pretty extreme, not to mention unrealistic. Anyway, is gossip always a negative?

There are plenty who regard it as poison at work and a passive-aggressive form of bullying. "When gossip infects the workplace, people shift their focus to what is wrong and what is not working, rather than [to] what is possible," says author Scott Hunter in this post. And workplace alliances forged out of shared spite are not to be recommended.

A lot is down to how open your culture and communication lines are in the company. I once worked in an office where we couldn't moan about our manager because his brother worked with us, and the atmosphere was great. It didn't cost us any effort to refrain from gossiping about someone we respected, but it appealed to our "better angels" and kept us from carping for the sake of it and spreading negativity. (I'm fairly sure we continued to gossip, though.)

Yet, office designers spend much of their time trying to manufacture opportunities for 'watercooler moments' at work -- ostensibly for the exchange of ideas, but realistically to have a natter and catch up with people you might not see every day. Maybe that's not gossip -- or the word needs a more benign definition for the modern workplace. Because it's not likely to go away -- and some organisations even use it to their advantage.

When the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust took over a failing NHS trust and wanted employee buy-in, it developed gossips -- allies within the failing trust who were informed and empowered to communicate to others, spread messages and build political support for the takeover.

What do you think -- is office gossip always toxic?