Sociology Mind
2011. Vol.1, No.4, 212-220
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/sm.2011.14027
A Field Exploration of Informal Workplace Communication
Bruce Fortado
Department of Management, University of North Florida, Jacksonville, USA.
Received May 22nd, 2011; revised July 12th, 2011; accepted August 25th, 2011.
Two views of informal communication are developed for purposes of comparison. Multiple incidents from two
US companies are described based on fieldwork. In both cases, managerial efforts were made to quell gossip.
Paradoxically, the versions multiplied at the first site and a gossip spiral occurred at the second. Our inductive
analysis reveals the shortcomings of the existing “best practices” and simple theories. Notably, in both cases
certain aspects of informal employee organization were more functional than some of the formal practices were .
Due to the complex nature of these social situations, great care must be taken in evaluating them and charting a
Keywords: Grapevine; Informal Communication; Informal Organization; Rumor; Resistance
In the 1930s, it became generally known that in addition to
studying the highly visible aspects of formal work organiza-
tions, much could be learned from developing the less visible
informal aspects of human organization (Barnard, 1938; Roeth-
lisberger & Dickson, 1939). Numerous field studies dealing
with various aspects of informal organization were carried out
over the course of the subsequent decades (Dalton, 1959; Roy,
1960; Gabriel, 1995, 2000; Knights & McCabe, 2003). Infor-
mal workplace communications will be the central focus of this
paper. Gossip is sometimes defined as being value laden state-
ments about people, rumors as being statements about things,
and the grapevine as being all forms of informal communica-
tion (Noon & Delbridge, 1993).
Some managers and consultants view gossip, rumors and the
rest of the grapevine as destructive cultural antimatter. Ac-
cordingly, measures are often endorsed to lessen if not elimi-
nate these potential dangers. Other people view all of these
varied forms of informal communication as natural cultural
matter. Both good and bad results may arise. Instead of making
a sweeping universal judgment, one could alternatively make
limited situational judgments. The potential for productive and
destructive informal activity can be thought of as being like the
interlocking black and white swirls of the yin and the yang
(Morgan, 1986). Under this view, managers should take care
not to make matters worse instead of better when they try to
exert greater control. This paper will explore these issues based
on two case studies from the USA.
Two Views: Cultural Matter or Antimatter?
Viewing workplace gossip, rumors and the rest of the grape-
vine as destructive cultural antimatter has a long heritage. In the
early portion of the 20th century, no talking rules were somet-
imes enacted. Management paid employees to work, not so-
cialize. Windows were sometimes bricked up to reduce poten-
tial distractions. This “efficiency mentality” was often com-
bined with Scientific Management methods. Supervisors ver-
bally pushed workers to produce under what was termed the
“drive system” (Jacoby, 1985). Over time, increasing me-
chaniczation and bureaucracy lessened the need to “drive” peo-
ple. “Paternalistic” family rhetoric and practices were often
The reliance on formal rules continues to date, but the nature
of them has evolved. In modern times, we have seen rules in-
stituted against talking about appraisal ratings, raises or base
salary levels. Sexually oriented speech and printed materials
have been banned. Various no fraternization rules were created
to reduce perceptions of favoritism and divisive gossip. Ethics
programs utilizing anonymous reporting have been adopted to
cut short any wrongdoing. Practical advice has been generated
on how to handle specific outbreaks of gossip or rumors. Man-
agers, for instance, have been told the “best practice” is to
adopt open and participatory communication practices, issue
denials from credible sources and instruct people to desist
(Bordia, et al., 2006: p. 617).
As the popularity of Scientific Management waned, new ef-
ficiency programs emerged. In the past 30 years, total quality
management, reengineering, Kaizen, Six Sigma, and lean
manufacturing have all experienced some popularity. Paternal-
ism has continued to be relied upon (Fleming, 2005). Cultural
materials were frequently introduced to capture the employees’
hearts and minds. Managers in various organizations have in-
troduced changes with titles such as “a team culture,” “a cus-
tomer service culture” and “a sales culture.” In some of these
situations, reliance on formal controls has been lessened in
favor of self control and peer discipline (Barker, 1999).
Unwritten managerial norms on how subordinates should act
also exist (Jackall, 1988). A wide variety of managerial silenc-
ing behaviors have been documented via fieldwork. These in-
clude chewing subordinates out (Moch & Huff, 1983), con-
demning them for being prideful or arrogant (O’Day, 1974),
making an example of one of them (Fortado, 1994), and saying
“no” based on stock reasons (Izraeli & Jick, 1986).
Under this management model, divisive gossip, rumors,
jokes and stories are viewed as cultural antimatter that can be
quite damaging. A great deal of time and effort has often been
devoted to integrating the workforce, fostering a positive public
image and producing as high a level of performance as possible.
Alternative norms and values as well as competing forms of
communication therefore tend to be perceived by managers as
evils (Danziger, 1988; Greengard, 2001; Burke & Wise, 2003).
Accordingly, virtually any counteracting measure seems well
The rival normal cultural matter view also has a long history.
Human Relations field research discovered employees typically
reacted to the prevailing formal organization by forming their
own informal organization (Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939).
In the early 1900s, managers generally thought of employees as
isolated individuals. One can better understand work situations
if the groups that have formed are recognized. Frustrated em-
ployees tend to share their feelings with one another. Shared
sentiments (i.e. group norms) were discovered, which often
stood in opposition to formal controls. These included one
should not work too fast and one should not tattle.
Due to the oppositional nature of many of the norms and ac-
tivities associated with informal organization, many managers
would like to destroy it. Roethlisberger (1945) argued this
would be a mistake. Many basic human needs are provided for
by the employees’ informal organization. Boring routine jobs
can be made more tolerable via the workers’ jokes, storytelling,
nicknaming, game playing and other forms of socialization
(Walker & Guest, 1952; Roy, 1960; Burawoy, 1979; Fortado,
1998; Gabriel, 2000). Bonding together via these social proc-
esses provided employees with emotional support, greater
status and some degree of shared power.
Group boundaries can be identified in no small part by ex-
amining patterns in gossiping (Gluckman, 1963). Employees
naturally take an interest in the people and events that surround
them. One can hardly be a member of a group without sharing
what has recently occurred and placing it in a historical per-
spective. Rank has its privileges, but everyone can engage in
informal communications. The weak can share their thoughts
with friends. This helps them cope with their disadvantaged
situation. Sometimes surface harmony will be maintained,
while hostilities are dealt with behind the scenes.
Employees often tell stories that show what the managers
and the organization are like (Fortado, 1992, 1998; Gabriel,
1995, 2000). Some of what is said is humorous or entertaining.
There is also a serious side. These remarks both reveal and
reinforce what people do and do not approve of (March & Se-
von, 1984). When differences in interests exist and inequities
are perceived, employees have proven to be very creative in
finding ways to resist (LaNuez & Jermier, 1994; Ackeroyd &
Thompson, 1999; Fortado, 2001).
Experience has shown when managers try to exert greater
control, the results can be paradoxical (Gouldner, 1954a; Mar-
tin, 2002). Gouldner (1954b) has described a case situation
where a new leader implemented a crackdown. New regulations
were enacted. This resulted in some greater compliance along
with some new resistance. Both of these outcomes encouraged
the addition of more regulations. The workers progressively
became more rebellious. In the end, the effort to exert greater
control resulted in control slipping away. This scenario has
been called “the paradox of control.”
Under this interpretive or interactionist model (Blumer,
1969), all forms of informal communication are viewed as
normal cultural matter. Since power does not exclusively reside
with the managers, aspects of the existing social realities have
been negotiated (Knights & McCabe, 2003). Some have argued
that these subjective areas constitute a terrain that is not and
cannot be managed (Gabriel, 1995). Others believe informal
organization can be influenced, but not totally controlled
(Moore, 1988).
Gathering Case Material
Our inductive analysis will be grounded on case examples
that were gathered in the USA (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Field
interviews, like the ones relied upon here, were started in 2006
as a part of a larger organization culture project. No consulting
relationship, past or present, existed with any of the organiza-
tions involved in this research. All of the actual names of the
organizations and people have been disguised.
Well known interviewing methods were used (Rogers &
Farson 1988; Whyte, 1984; Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939).
The interview guide contained a mixture of specific background
questions and open-ended cultural questions. An Institutional
Review Board reviewed and approved this guide.
The background questions were covered first, so participants
could relax and become comfortable with being interviewed
(Appendix). They were subsequently encouraged to talk at
length about the cultural subjects that were of interest to them.
The participants were not interrupted. The interviewer did not
morally judge anything that was said. Virtually all of the ensu-
ing examples of informal communication were obtained by
asking about other subjects. Some of the most useful questions
were asking what big changes had taken place and what events
had produced a strong emotional reaction.
The interviews were recorded. This is the most highly rec-
ommended way to lessen interpretive errors (Mishler, 1986).
Company documents and websites were examined. This proc-
ess added as well as verified information. Involving an insider
is another way to improve the accuracy of field reports (Fortado,
1990). After a draft of our findings was prepared, certain mat-
ters were clarified via participant consultation.
The Value Stores Case
Tim Barr had worked for the Value Stores retail chain for
about two years. The company had roughly 1,500 stores and
300,000 employees. A store would typically have 150 to 225
employees. Initially, John Smith was Tim’s store manager.
There were also eight department managers. Below this, there
were a series of team leaders. Tim currently worked in the re-
ceiving and reverse logistics area.
Tim viewed five hours of DVDs during his orientation. He
was told about the chain and its culture. Tim remembered the
catchy slogan the company employed. However, he normally
did not think about this slogan as he carried out his job. Other
cultural material was also conveyed. The new employees were
told to be as one in a team environment, and accept and respect
other people. These values seemed like common sense to Tim,
so he did not pay much attention to them. He knew that the
mission and vision statements were posted in the break room.
Tim normally just walked by them.
Tim mentioned the daily meetings. Great team player award
cards were regularly presented to encourage good behaviors.
These cards were posted on a wall. At the end of the month, a
drawing was held from these cards. The winners received
$10-20. Tim personally was not motivated by these cards. He
thought his friends felt much the same way. Most of them were
given to people from the sales floor. These awards did not seem
like a big deal, because they were given out every day. Never-
theless, Tim put a lot of effort into his job. He took pride in
what he was doing.
Tim had friends who worked at the store in various depart-
ments. It was these friends who persuaded him to apply for a
job. After Tim was hired, they still continued to socialize out-
side of work. Over time, this group became closer. The main
topic of conversation in the upcoming days was interesting
events that happened at work. Tim found most of the informa-
tion he obtained via the grapevine to be accurate.
John Smith held a party one evening at his residence. Many
of the managers from his store attended. Mary Mooney, the
manager of the back of the store, was left in charge that evening.
Various versions of what took place at the party circulated
among the employees. The simplest version was that after con-
suming alcohol, some of the female department managers took
off their clothes. Photos of them were taken.
In the days that followed, Mary Mooney saw the pictures.
She e-mailed the district manager. The district manager then
confronted John Smith. This resulted in him quitting. The rest
of the managers who attended the party were transferred over
time. The group involved was thereby completely broken up.
Mary Mooney also moved to a store in an area where she came
from. This meant the store had entirely new leadership.
Tim first heard about this scandal from Terri Small, his team
leader. Terri was a friend of one of the female managers who
had allegedly taken her clothes off.
At one of the daily area meetings, Mary Mooney instructed
her subordinates not to talk about why John Smith left or they
would be in trouble. This instruction was not obeyed. New
details emerged as Tim heard different accounts of the evening.
In one, it was claimed there were drugs involved. In another, it
was claimed certain people had sex. The most extreme version
asserted the party had turned into a big orgy. As Tim heard one
version after another, he found himself wondering what really
did happen.
Earlier in his interview, Tim explained that he respected John
Smith. Yet, he seemed cold and distant like “Robocop.” This
sounded like a wild college party to Tim and his friends. Thus,
this gossip humanized the managers and made them less dis-
Tim explained Mary Mooney was not well liked. She came
from another company. Tim felt that she acted “all high and
mighty.” He ca lled her a “micromanager.” She would check on
her subordinates 24/7 (i.e. 24 hours a day, seven days a week).
Tim said at times Mary would check on things every five min-
When Tim moved to the back of the store, his team leader,
Terri, taught him his new job for a few weeks. Terri showed
him how to do certain things. She did other tasks entirely her-
self. Tim learned to do reverse logistics. Terri took care of re-
ceiving. This was in keeping with the formal job descriptions.
It was discovered that Terri was dating a manager who also
worked in this store. There was a company policy that prohib-
ited a manager from having a relationship with a team member
in the same location. The manager chose to move to another
store. They eventually married. Terri’s team leader position was
eliminated for this section. There would still be a team leader
for the back of the store, but not for the loading area. Terri told
Tim that she might be moving to another team leader position
within the store. After this, he was told she might be taking a
team leader position in another store. This did not in fact hap-
pen. Terri decided to quit. She felt “tugged around” and took it
At this point, Tim was expected to take over all of the duties
in the area. He only knew how to do reverse logistics. There
was no one else in this store to ask questions about receiving.
He felt a great deal of pressure from Mary Mooney to get all of
the work done. She kept checking on his progress. After ex-
periencing about a month of great frustration, Tim finally mas-
tered the receiving tasks.
One of the main ways Tim learned to do these new duties
was by developing informal relationships with receiving people
from other stores. He also found a company website that con-
tained a great deal of useful information. This combination of
formal and informal communication channels eventually over-
came the problem.
A new coworker, Darcy Mann, later joined Tim. At this point,
he believed that he knew even more than Terri had. He treated
Darcy like a partner. He informally cross trained her in both
receiving and reverse logistics. Formally, one was a specialist
in receiving and the other in reverse logistics. Day-to-day, they
worked together on aspects of the job as a team, rather than
segmenting the tasks according to the job descriptions. Argua-
bly, what was informally done here was far better for the or-
ganization. It made the day-to-day work easier, and left the
operation less vulnerable if one of the two left.
The Insuro Case
Insuro was a health insurance company with roughly 7,400
employees. The company had a strong credit rating. It had pro-
duced positive financial results each year for over 15 years.
Insuro had a thirty percent market share within the region it
served. This was more than double its nearest competitor. The
leadership was committed to the communities Insuro operated
in. In 2006, the company had given over 19 million dollars in
charitable contributions. Its employees also did 30,000 hours in
volunteer work.
According to the management, organization culture was part
of the company’s DNA. The mission, vision and values were
covered in the employee orientation. There were catchy slogans
aimed at both customers and employees. One of the central
themes was providing better customer service than its competi-
tors did. Continuous improvement was another one of the
company’s values. For more than a decade, Insuro had been
trying to reduce its costs. A study had revealed the organiza-
tion’s administrative costs were among the highest of providers
doing the same type of work. A variety of methods were used
to get administrative costs down. The primary way was by re-
ducing staff.
During the 1990s, the organization had flattened itself and
adopted a team design on the lowest levels. Many middle level
management positions were eliminated. The gap between first
line managers and the director level was very large. This made
it more difficult for managers to be promoted. Over time, it was
decided too much power had been delegated downward. Per-
formance had slipped. Some of the old formal controls were
reasserted. This involved monitoring additional calls, enacting
progressive discipline and being more demanding in perform-
ance evaluations.
In 2002, voluntary severance packages were offered to re-
duce costs. In subsequent years, some divisions and depart-
ments carried out reorganizations that resulted in layoffs. Be-
tween 2006 and 2008, 1100 jobs were cut. This was about 13%
of the workforce. Roughly 100 claims processing jobs had been
outsourced to a third world country. This move was not public-
cized. Those who knew of this change had either learned of it
via their work assignment or the grapevine.
Annual surveys revealed increased stress existed. Employees
feared they might lose their jobs. Those who remained were
also pushed to do more work.
On occasion, quite different stories were put forward about
aspects of the historic reorganizations. One example of this was
when a team was moved to the supervision of a new director.
The formally stated reason for the move was this would be a
better fit. Informally, the reason given was that this director
needed five more people in order to maintain his title. In an-
other case, a manager had made a female employee cry on nu-
merous occasions. Instead of stating that she was being moved
due to this supervisory problem, it was said there was a better
strategic fit elsewhere. In such instances, many employees be-
lieved the gossip about what was taking place more than the
formal line.
Insuro used both Six Sigma project teams and Rapid Process
Improvement teams. The proposed improvements generated fell
into three basic categories: namely, trying to help obtain new
business, cut out unnecessary bureaucracy, and reduce costs.
Some of the changes made were not entirely well received.
For example, Marcia mentioned all desktop printers being
eliminated to cut costs. Now she had to walk to a central laser
printer to pick up her documents. Marcia doubted this saved
much money and felt the process had gone too far.
At the same time other steps were taken. Recycled toner car-
tridges were adopted. The darkness of the print was adjusted
downward, so only draft quality documents were produced.
Complaints soon were made about documents being too light to
be useful. Frequent printer adjustments were now necessary.
Only one print cartridge could be ordered at a time. Recycled
toner cartridges did not last as long. Having no inventory on
hand quickly became a source of irritation. The explanation for
this practice was holding an inventory could be wasteful. If a
printer broke and it could not be economically repaired, there
might not be an alternative use for the remaining cartridges.
Some employees argued against having their desktop printers
removed due to the fact they needed to print confidential
documents. This argument was overcome by having security
codes placed in the central printer. These codes restricted ac-
cess to the documents. Some employees, though, had difficulty
remembering the codes.
Originally, Insuro provided better pay and benefits than its
competitors. Over time, the drive to reduce costs meant the
objective became to provide average levels of compensation.
Employees from certain areas reported their raises were unaf-
fected. Others said reductions had been made. Some employees
grumbled to one another about why one should be a “best per-
former” if one got the same raise or a very little additional raise.
The average raise in this area at the time was 3%.
The amount of paid time off awarded per paycheck was uni-
formly cut by roughly 30%. This produced markedly lower
morale on employ ee surveys. While the cuts were not reversed,
other changes based on employee suggestions were made to
cheer the employees up. For instance, they were allowed to
wear more casual dress. Free coffee, tea and hot chocolate were
given. A car wash was also provided.
In 2006, sales were increased by stressing PPO rather than
HMO products. PPO products cost less. The new lower admin-
istrative costs helped Insuro achieve this success. Ironically, the
past staffing cuts resulted in an insufficient number of customer
service representatives being available to deal with the new
volume of business. This translated into slower phone response
times. The employees realized this would impact their apprais-
als and raises. Since this situation was beyond their control, it
seemed unfair.
A cultural item would be given out each year to show appre-
ciation and foster a sense of company pride. Historically, the
employees had been given an Insuro picnic blanket, lawn chair,
and umbrella. Various smaller cultural items were also pro-
duced and distributed. If one got a complimentary letter from a
customer, a star shaped Insuro slinky might be awarded. Alter-
natively, when something had been done well the employee
would be allowed to choose an item from a big box of toys.
This box included among other things fluffy men, fluffy toys,
Star Wa r s f igures, an d laptop bags.
Some areas had adopted their own higher level forms of cul-
tural recognition. In one department, every six months a com-
mittee would select a small number of award winners. One
could be nominated by a manager or a coworker. The winners
might be given a recognition lunch, a $500 reward, a name
engraved crystal star award, and a name inscription on a hall of
stars plaque. Another form of recognition involved taking
award winners on a dinner cruise to a city 30 minutes away.
Some employees told their peers that they would have been
happier if they were given the money involved in producing the
smaller cultural items (i.e. $2-$14). One said the toys should
have been cut to save administrative costs. Overall, some of the
items, like the umbrella, were seen as much more useful than
others, like the l awn chair .
In one meeting, an employee asked why the company was
spending money on these cultural items and then saying there
was no money to send people in her area to training classes. A
manager assured her that an effort would be made to find
money for important training classes. Feelings along these lines
also surfaced elsewhere. For example, Jan felt that it was wrong
for the company to be spending money on these cultural items
when so many cost cuts and layoffs were being made. Evi-
dently, the very items that were meant to improve company
identification, spirit and morale were having the reverse impact
for some employees. The feelings were often shared with co-
High level officers like VPs and directors would periodically
meet with a group of 15 employees for lunch. Recently, a HR
manager also attended. The formal remarks regarding what was
happening at the company and how they were performing con-
sumed most of the time. Only a few minutes were left for que s-
tions. One employee asked with all the cuts that had been im-
plemented, why were so many people being promoted to new
VP positions? The HR manager responded that this was their
natural progression and they now qualified for that job. This
was not deemed to be an acceptable answer by some of the
employees present, but the issue was not pursued. One attendee
later said the positions were simply created for these individu-
als and they applied for them.
In general, employees were reluctant to get on the bad side of
managers from the highest levels. History had shown this could
be “career limiting.” Some of those who had complained about
managers or raises in the past had been targeted in one of the
reorganizations. Whereas employees might lose their jobs,
managers normally received lesser treatment. For example, a
manager might be moved from supervising a team of 13 to 15
to a team of one or two. Disagreeable managers might get la-
beled by a superior. If those above agreed, the person would
probably never be able to shake it.
These perceived inconsistencies and inequities produced
more than just internal gossip. When Insuro was getting news
coverage for its donations to a major community activity in
2005, someone leaked news to the press about upcoming lay-
offs. This drew attention to the large amount of money being
spent on public giving, while at the same time job cuts were
being made. Many of the impacted employees first heard of the
upcoming layoffs from the press. In another instance, the
CEO’s salary and multimillion dollar bonus were leaked to the
press shortly before some layoffs were to take place. These
articles generated even more gossip about these matters.
One corrective action was taken in response. Members of the
press normally contacted Insuro’s media representatives before
an article was run to get the official stance on the subject. In-
ternal communication was sped up, so people did not get first
notice of employment decisions, such as layoffs, from the press.
Gloria shared the following story. A weight loss contest was
started by a group of employees. Gloria had previously won
$25 in such a contest. Although the amount of money was
small, she was proud to have won this competition.
An anonymous report regarding the latest weight loss contest
was made to the “Stay on Track” ethics program. Someone
would soon be sent to investigate the allegation. As a policy
matter, betting pools were officially condemned.
Marcia had expressed some concern about this Stay on Track
process earlier. She felt that it was assumed the anonymous
charges were true. Next, the employees concerned were closely
observed. This could be somewhat intimidating. Marcia thought
this was something short of due process. The accused never got
to face his/her accuser. Further, the employees involved were
not assumed innocent until proven guilty.
In the specific case of the weight loss pool, the group re-
ceived an informal warning from a VP, Kay. She told all of the
participants the contest had been reported to the Stay on Track
program. Kay was one of the contestants. Gloria laughed and
explained nothing had been put in writing, so nothing could be
In this case, the grapevine provided forewarning. This made
it highly unlikely the upcoming investigation would uncover
anything. Notably, the contest’s outcome would have been
based on hard work and discipline, rather than chance or the
outcome of a sporting event. Ironically, this weight loss contest
would have contributed more to the employees’ health than
some of the other approved company practices. For example,
fried chicken was being served in the cafeteria. To show appre-
ciation and foster greater motivation, free meals were occasion-
ally provided. O vereating could easily result.
Insuro’s workforce was 65 - 70 percent female. The manage-
ment took pride in pointing out the company had been rated as
one of the top ten places for women and minorities to work.
Many of the women worked at computer terminals, handling
phone calls for much of the day from various customers and
medical facilities. At the highest levels, the number of men
outnumbered the women.
Our interviews revealed the upper levels were thought to be
an “ole boy network.” The company had started this way and it
was still perceived to largely be this way. Some women did
reach the director and VP level. Despite this, Gloria noted that
they did not seem to stay in those jobs very long. Erin had
served on a diversity counsel. During this time, she asked for
breakdown of the number of men and women by level. This
information was never provided.
The women who wanted to progress were essentially given
no specific practical guidance from the formal company line
that Insuro embraced diversity. Instead, ambitious women had
to learn what to do and not do via the grapevine.
Robin explained the company encouraged people to earn
university degrees. However, she believed the culture placed
more value on work experience. Job posting was used rather
than managerial nomination. Nonetheless, Robin believed some
jobs were far more open than others. According to the gossip,
the qualifications for some jobs were manipulated prior to be-
ing posted, so only the person the managers had in mind would
be a good fit. The best of the rest who applied would get an
interview, but no subsequent feedback was typically provided.
One had to learn how to fend for oneself.
Erin had started working in an area that dealt with doctors
and medical facilities. When she began looking at a promotion
opportunity in the area that dealt with patients, her colleagues
gave her some words of warning. The majority of the employ-
ees there were young women who dealt with policy holders
over the phone. These jobs had a high turnover rate. Some of
the employees were viewed as immature. For all of these rea-
sons, this was considered to be a lower status area. Erin was
offered the job and she took it. After spending some time there,
it did not seem to be so bad. Her job, though, was not a mana-
gerial one dealing with the employees who she had been
warned about.
Erin outlined a number of things that she had learned about
furthering her career. Who you know was very important. It
was critical that one provide deliverables by a known deadline.
After proving themselves, women then had to take steps to get
acknowledged for that. They had to express an interest in being
promoted and build a case for it. Innovation was being valued
recently, so you had to present new ideas. At the same time,
you had to avoid being perceived as someone who “rocked the
Women could disagree, but it had to be done very profes-
sionally. Women who were disrespectful, rude or flew off the
handle in meetings would develop a bad reputation. This bad
image would stick with them. Women could foresee certain
outcomes. Yet, if they did not get their way, they had to accept
this gracefully.
Erin recalled a time when her former female manager did not
get her way. She concluded the discussion by saying “OK.
Whatever, we will do that.” She complied, but her tone was
noted. She got labeled as having “a bad attitude” and was
unlikely to get promoted. Erin explained whereas men might be
admired for being confident or aggressive, women had to be-
ware being perceived as “pushy or bitchy.”
Robin also had worked for a female manager who had been
labeled as not playing the game. She generally wanted to “put
her two cents in.” On numerous occasions she had suggested
improvements. The male managers surrounding her would do
each other favors. She questioned some of these decisions. The
men responded that they all agreed, so she was wrong. This
resulted in her being thought of as “a bad influence.” There
were a number of common background characteristics that may
have contributed to the men’s unity. Some of them had served
in the Navy together. Some had also worked together at a bank.
When the time came to make a promotion decision, men who
were well known tended to be promoted. This “ole boy” system
was very real to many Insuro women.
Erin had told her current male manager that she hoped to be
promoted one day. He stressed the importance of networking.
Erin was well aware her manager regularly ate lunch with
various people to network. In contrast, she tended to eat by
herself. Erin acknowledged she was more introverted than he
was. In order to help her meet managers and become better
informed, he arranged for her to attend managerial meetings.
This might seem like a small matter, but it was not. The
managers typically would not share much information with
subordinates. Robin felt they viewed themselves as a different
social class. This restricting information norm was evident to
employees when they approached managers, because they fre-
quently would suddenly stop talking.
Various forms of informal communication played prominent
roles in these social situations. The official managerial rhetoric
and practices were being either overtly or covertly challenged.
When everything did not go entirely as some of the managers
would have liked, corrective measures were undertaken. Once
again, unintended results ensued.
The managers at Value Stores had a culture program and a
fraternization rule. Mary Mooney forbade her team members
from talking about why John Smith left. The tales that were
told nonetheless multiplied with new titillating details being
added over time. Mooney’s order was occasionally recounted
as a preface to more gossiping. This prohibition paradoxically
fueled the very fire it was meant to extinguish (Foster, 2004).
Insuro had both a continuous improvement and culture pro-
gram. A gossip spiral developed. First, the employees gossiped
about the inconsistencies and inequities of their managers’
lengthy drive to cut administrative costs. Some Insuro manag-
ers gave their employees a chance to ask questions. A number
of concerns were raised in meetings. It may have seemed like
the managerial explanations were accepted. Some modest
course adjustments were made. Nevertheless, discontent con-
tinued to mount behind the scenes. People gossiped about their
managers reactions. An anonymous source got a newspaper to
print several provocative articles. These articles were then gos-
siped about.
In both cases, the attempts to silence dissent made matters
worse. The managers proved to be less than fully forthcoming
and responsive. This conveyed a lack of trust and respect. Em-
ployees can easily conclude their managers are aloof and do not
care much about to them. Disgruntled employees often assert
their independence by secretly partaking in more gossip. Doing
so can be pleasurable, cathartic and empowering. Our cases
suggest there are different manifestations or evolutionary paths.
Since the chosen remedial actions failed, a more sophisticated
contingency appr oac h is evidently needed.
The effort to exert greater control in both companies para-
doxically resulted in control slipping further away. Whether the
managers realized this was another matter. Many managers
have historically failed to fully see how festering unresolved
conflicts tend to undergo a metamorphosis that can greatly
undermine their efforts (Fortado, 2001). Just as Human Rela-
tions researchers productively critiqued the old efficiency men-
tality, fieldwork can do much the same with ma ny management
practices today.
A popular recommendation to get out of the paradox of con-
trol is to delegate power and rely more on self control and peer
discipline. Value Stores used the term “team” regularly. Most
team members, though, were not actually empowered to make
many meaningful decisions. Some of the increased delegation
at Insuro was later reined in, because performance had slipped.
Tensions were bound to rise as a result.
A recent field study of a hospital found rumors were created
by the stress of undergoing a change process (Bordia, et al.,
2006). It remains to be seen if popular cultural change efforts
will generally lessen divisive informal communication. The
limited existing fieldwork conducted by detached researchers
suggests such programs may not be a panacea. Salient differ-
ences have been found between what some managers say and
what they do, work can be intensified, painful budget and staff
cuts may be made, hierarchical power relations tend to persist,
and when things do not go as planned, traditional controls may
be reasserted (Grenier, 1988; Kunda, 1992; Reynolds, 1994;
Watson, 1994; McKinlay & Taylor, 1996; Ezzamel, Willmott
& Worthington, 2001; Knights & McCabe, 2003; Fleming,
2005). Such matters frequently provide the fuel for destructive
gossip, rumors, jokes and stories as well as other forms of re-
Dyadic gossip and rumor theory has focused on how verbal
messages are passed from a sender to a receiver (Kurland &
Pelled, 2000). The photos and the newspaper articles in our two
cases showed gossip can be seen as well as heard. Celebrity
tabloids have long used these forms. Moreover, “the receiver”
can be plural. A sender may speak in a meeting or to an infor-
mal group. Documents are often distributed to large audiences.
We also discovered “the sender” may be anonymous. This was
the case in the leaks that were made to a newspaper and the
report that was made to the “Stay on Track” program. Evidently,
our academic taxonomy needs to be inductively expanded.
The scope of gossip, rumors jokes and stories can vary
widely. In the Value Stores scenario, the personnel at one store
were involved. In contrast, the scope at Insuro spanned all of
the internal units as well as the surrounding community. From
this point forward, one should consider how broad the scope is
internally, ranging from a few people on one end to the entire
organization on the other. On the external side, the scope can
range from a few members of the local community to very
widespread knowledge.
We found value laden statements about both people and
things being made behind the scenes. One accordingly could
differentiate some items as gossip and others as rumors. When
deductive quantitative content analyses are done, mutually ex-
clusive categories are used to produce reliable coding. Should
this sort of analysis be done here?
Let us consider two pairs of examples. In the Insuro case,
there were two newspaper articles. One reported news about
layoffs juxtaposed with the amount of money that had been
contributed to a community event. The other reported news
about layoffs juxtaposed with the most recent compensation
package of the CEO. Frustrations were expressed elsewhere
about new expenditures being made on token cultural items.
Managers were also asked why so many new VP positions were
being created in a meeting. Should we label the former example
in each pair a rumor and the latter gossip?
A few caveats should be noted here. Even when the merits of
policies and decisions were impersonally discussed, the judg-
ment of the decision makers was being indirectly questioned.
Many people talk more directly behind people’s backs. Things
tend to be stated less personally in face-to-face interactions or
when the subject is likely to hear about it. Many varied degrees
of personalization were found in our cases.
Strictly applying the above definitions might confuse rather
than clarify matters. Doing so could obscure the common ironic
theme that questionable new expenditures were being made
during a period of extensive cost cutting. The inconsistencies
and inequities the offended employees saw were demonstrated
via a series of examples. What people mean should always be
our central focus in writing a field research report.
Theoretically thinking solely in terms of one person spread-
ing a particular piece of gossip seems over simplistic. In the
Value Stores case, multiple people told various versions of
what happened at the party. Situations like this one can crack
open the value sets of those involved. Some people enjoy such
activities. Others would not do such things, but still find the
behaviors to be of interest in terms of their fantasy life or as a
source of amusement (Gabriel, 1995). Still others do not ap-
prove of what took place, but they are willing to tolerate it. At
the other end of the spectrum are those who feel strongly com-
pelled to crack down on the perpetrators. These multiple layers
of reactions reflect the diverse or fragmentary elements of an
organization culture (Martin, 2002).
Some academics have tried to draw a sharp theoretical dis-
tinction between positive and negative forms of gossip (Noon
& Delbridge, 1993; Kurland & Pelled, 2000). In practice, this
means one must assume the perspective of a particular person
or group. In the Value Stores case, should one take the perspec-
tive of the district manager, John Smith, Mary Mooney, or
some other person? In the Insuro case, should one take the per-
spective of the managers who drove the costs cuts, the down-
sized employees, or some group of the remaining employees?
Should one take the perspective of the person who reported the
weight loss contest, or that of those in the contest? Should one
take the official perspective that Insuro embraced diversity or
that of the women who still perceived there to be an “ole boy”
network? No perspective is objective or neutral.
What is negative gossip to one person may be truth telling to
another. Actions that were labeled as fostering greater integra-
tion and stability by some may be seen by others as ignoring
their interests and denying them input. What one group views
as disruptive dissent can be seen by another as the pursuit of
legitimate ends. Praise has historically been categorized as
positive gossip. Yet, a competitor could view such remarks as
unwarranted spin. One should always consider who is talking
and whose voice is left out.
For the moment, let us assume an upper level management
perspective. Our fieldwork suggests irritating gossip, rumors,
jokes and stories can be found along with other positive aspects
of informal organization. At times, what was taking place in-
formally was more productive than some of the formal policies
and practices were.
Tim Barr learned how to do his new receiving duties in no
small part via informal communication. Subsequently, he
crossed trained a new colleague sub rosa. This allowed the two
work as a team. It also made the store less vulnerable to turn-
over. The group of friend’s weight loss contest at Insuro was
quite likely to produce health benefits. This was more than
could be said for the fried chicken that was being served in the
cafeteria or the overeating that was likely to result from the free
motivational meals. An informal leak effectively put an end to a
potentially demoralizing investigation. Some Insuro women
listened to the gossip about the good ole boy system and bene-
fited from the grapevine tips on what they could do to get pro-
One should never remove informal communication from its
full and proper social context in theory, research or practice.
Managers can easily make evaluative mistakes if they focus on
their traditional control measures and formal culture programs,
while at the same time they ignore what is informally being
said and done. Based on our fieldwork, managers would be ill
advised to blindly attack the employees’ informal organization.
The prevailing human relations could easily become worse
instead of better.
Work holds a central place in people’s lives. Entire people
come to work, not just the portions that can be thought of as
biological machinery. Employees are not androids who can be
programmed or obedient thralls. They have minds of their own.
Subordinates will speak their minds one way or another. When
disappointing managerial behaviors generate gossip, rumors,
jokes, and stories, the future can still be positively influenced.
The question is whether managers are willing to do so, because
this may involve painful actions such as admitting mistakes,
sharing power and making less money.
The managers in our cases, like many others before them,
operated based on the logic of the cultural antimatter view. The
cultural matter view, though, provided the best fit with what we
found. Instead of thinking in terms one or the other, in practice
one really needs to appreciate both views. Doing a proper or-
ganization analysis requires an examination of both the formal
and informal organization, including where they complement
and contradict one another (Dalton, 1959).
Gaps between “what is” and “what should be” often exist
(Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939). If one accepts that work
situations involve managing social exchanges, it logically fol-
lows that periodic status assessments should be made. One
would start with a field study of the basic beliefs and values of
the employees (Moore, 1988: p. 13). The way the social system
operated would be described. Next, one could consider how, if
at all, the organization could be made more effective. After
making a change, some ongoing observation would take place.
Adjustments would then be made as needed.
Many managers take a dim view of employee gossip, rumors,
jokes and stories, because distortions, exaggerations and omis-
sions can occur. Yet, employees tend to believe most of what
they have heard via the grapevine is accurate (Daft & Steers,
1986: p. 541). This schism needs to be recognized. The reasons
for it should also be considered.
Certain people serve as the conduits for the exchange of in-
formation up and down the hierarchy (Dalton, 1959). One can
share what one knows and learn what one does not know. Em-
ployees often learn about what the managers are discussing and
what has been decided. Managers frequently learn about what
the employees are talking about. Some of the aforementioned
schism could be explained by these positional differences.
Prior field research has shown managers sometimes use the
grapevine to create useful false impressions (Fortado, 1994).
Moreover, when things have not gone well, efforts may be
made to pass the blame or cover up (Jackall, 1988). In our cases,
some employees found gossip about personal or political mo-
tives to be more credible than what the official line was. Given
a specific situation, one could ponder whether such conclusions
are accurate or merely a conspiracy theory. Long ago, Thomas
(1928: p. 572) pointed out what is real to people is by its very
nature real in its consequences. Thus, attempting to determine
an objective answer appears to be a moot point.
When managers copy a “best practice” or implement a new
culture program, they may overlook key aspects of the social
situation (Knights & McCabe, 2003). Informal communications
are far from just idle chatter. People act based on their interpre-
tations. Interpretations are founded on historic experiences and
the social context (Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939; Blumer,
1969). The grapevine shapes employee sentiments about the
company and specific people. It would be imprudent to ignore
these social facts.
Many managers would greatly benefit if they could learn to
do sociological analysis. The relational and emotional compo-
nents of informal communications can serve as a thermometer
that roughly gauges the warmth of human relations. The spe-
cifics, while not always completely accurate, can also contrib-
ute to ongoing diagnostic processes. Managers periodically
need to determine how things got to the current state of affairs
and, if need be, what can now be done to improve upon matters.
An earlier version of this paper entitled “Organizational gos-
sip: Cultural matter or antimatter?” was presented at the 24th
EGOS Colloquium, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, July 10-12,
2008. The author would like to thank Piers Myers and Grant
Michelson for their comments.
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Appendix. Interview Guide
What does “organization culture” mean to you? Where have
you heard of this term? How does your organization define it?
Have you seen it defined at school? Have you seen any other
definitions? What are your thoughts on organization culture?
What is your job title? Who do you work for? What other
jobs have you held?
When does your workday start? Do you have any breaks?
When are you done? Do you have any goals or targets? What
are they? How are you paid? Are there different shif ts? Do you
have to work any overtime? How are overtime assignments
How did you learn how to do your job? Tell me about what
you do. Are there many rules and procedures? Do people ever
cut corners? Are there any methods that you use which are not
formally taught? Could you give me some examples? Is it
pretty clear what you should and should not do? Could you
give me some examples? Are workers watched pretty closely,
or are they largely left on their own to get the job done?
Who is your boss? How much do you see or hear from your
boss every day? What is your boss like? Could you give me
some examples that show what he is like? When someone is
not doing the right thing, how does your boss handle the situa-
tion? Could you gi v e me some examples?
How many people are in your group? How much do you see
or hear from coworkers? What are your coworkers like? Could
you give me some examples of what they are like? When
someone is not doing the right thing, how do your coworkers
handle the situation? Could you give me some examples?
Who are the managers above your boss? How often do you
hear or see them? What are they like? Could you give me some
examples that show what they are like? When someone is not
doing the right thing, how do these managers handle the situa-
tion? Could you g i v e me some examples?
What type of decisions do you make at work? What type of
decisions does your boss make? What type of decisions does
his/her superior make? Is it clear who should do what? Are the
people who make the decisions also held accountable for the
Have you seen any big changes over time? Have you moved
to a new organization? Have you changed jobs? Has there been
a merger? Has there been a leadership change? Has there been
structural change, such as shifting to a team design? Tell me
about these changes? What were things like at first? How did
things change?
Can you think of any events that produced strong emotional
reactions? Could you tell me more about that? What were the
emotions? What happened?
How do you learn about things at work? (e.g. meetings;
memos; e-mails; the boss; the grapevine, meaning coworkers or
other workers; or other means) Are you kept well informed?
Do you understand how decisions are made? Have there been
any sudden changes? Tell me about that change. Are your
questions promptly answered? Were the answers clear? Could
you give me some examples? Have there been any rumors?
Could you give me some examples? Do you normally hear
about what is going to happen before it is formally announced?
Could you give me any examples?
How often do you have meetings? Who do you meet with?
What are the meetings like?
Does the organization have any ceremonies and rituals? (e.g.
a retirement ceremony, merit awards, service awards, the in-
troduction of a new boss, a promotion ceremony)
Do people ever tell you stories? Could you give me some
Do you know much about the history of the organization?
What things stand out in your mind? How did you learn about
these things?
Do you have any printed shared values, slogans, or mis-
sion/vision statements? Does the organization distribute any
items with company logos or slogans on them? What do you
think about these items?
Has your company had any leaders that stand out? Tell me
about them.
Do your coworkers have any norms, meaning unwritten
codes of conduct, regarding how people should and should not
act? Could you give me some examples? (e.g. do not tattle, do
not brown nose, do not work too fast, do not act too big) How
are these conveyed to newcomers? What happens if a worker
does not want to go along? (peer pressure, verbal requests,
looks, comments, teasing, nicknaming, ostracism, binging, etc.)
How are people rewarded for good performance? (high per-
formance appraisals, raises, promotions, bonuses, other merit
recognitions, being able to bend the rules, running up an ex-
pense account, cutting corners on time, etc.)
Do people tell jokes about things that have happened at work?
Could you give me any examples?
Are any nicknames used at work? Could you give me some
examples? Where did that come from? What is that person like?
Could you give me some examples?
What is currently going well at work? What could be im-
proved? What is the best thing that has happened at work?
What is the worst thing that has happened?
What is the reality of your work situation with respect to the
following subjects: namely, 1) job security, 2) recognition, 3)
equity, 4) trust, and 5) respect? What made you say that? You
could explain wha t l e d you to that conclu s i on?