RUMOURS constitute a feature of any social environment. In an organisational context, rumours are often referred to as the grapevine.

It is essentially unsubstantiated and incomplete information passed by word of mouth and subject to distortion.

This occurs because, often unintentionally, communicators place greater stress on the aspects of the message that concern them or on the more "spicy" elements. These might include references to a particular individual's indiscretions or infidelities or other aspects of their life that are liable to cause them embarrassment.

"Gossip" has less substance and possesses a certain ad hoc quality, which undermines its durability.

An interesting study of organisational rumours conducted in 1996 indicated that, within an organisation, disseminators of rumours constitute a relatively small number of employees.

The study observed that when a senior executive decided to resign, 81 per cent of the workforce knew about his decision before it was formally announced. But only 11 per cent had been actively involved in passing the information on.

According to Mr Ralf Sommerfeld of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, "gossip has a strong influence... even when participants have access to the original information as well as gossip about the same information". In other words people are often more readily prepared to believe gossip than the truth.

Several factors influence why a rumour catches on. One factor is the substance of the message and its relevance to the lives of the employees.

At the same time, people are more inclined to believe a rumour in terms of its content and if it is communicated by someone whom they perceive as being credible.

If the subject of the rumour has a high profile within the organisation, for example, a CEO, it is more likely to be of general interest.

Other factors contributing to the perpetuation of a rumour include wishful thinking and how much employees want to believe it.

Seen and heard

There are different types of rumours. These include "wedge-driving rumours" which are started sometimes deliberately as a way of creating tension and disharmony.

These might include, for example, the suggestion that directors are receiving better remuneration packages than they actually do. These types of rumours are often believed because employees want to believe them.

"Anxiety rumours" relieve anxiety and counter-balance employees' worst fears. A lack of concrete information is also conducive to the nurturing of this type of rumour.

"Social rumours" usually concern the private lives of employees and are often a way of relieving the day-to-day routine of work.

"Malicious rumours" tend to be motivated by feelings of revenge and a desire to get even or to simply create trouble. Spreading a credible rumour also gives many people a sense of power and control.

Finally, there are "self-fulfilling rumours" whereby fantasy actually influences reality. On more than one occasion, rumours that a company is going bankrupt have actually caused it to go bankrupt!

Lack of trust

Rumours can be destructive to an organisation. They often arise when a company fails to communicate with its employees and withholds information, thus creating a lack of trust.

In this type of situation, rumours are a way of reducing uncertainty. Rumours can also reflect an "us and them" culture and are often a feature of bad employee relations.

I once worked for a company where the dissemination of rumours was a game. The challenge was to see who could invent and successfully circulate the most farfetched yarns.

This was a reaction to "controls" that were autocratic to the point of absurdity. Circulating fictitious stories was a way of hitting back and even damaging the organisation.

Sometimes, rumours can be used by management for their own purposes. Managers have been known to manipulate the grapevine to serve their own ends by, for example, suggesting that a failure to raise productivity might result in job losses.

At the same time, rumours can supplement the formal communication process. The grapevine can keep senior management updated on the undercurrent of feelings and how employees really feel about specific issues.

There may, for example, be some general disquiet about the management style of a recently appointed executive which, perhaps for diplomatic reasons, wouldn't be passed on through formal communication processes.

Rumours in the workplace fall within the category of "negative political behaviour" or behaviour that is liable to damage the future prospects of an organisation.

The real problem is when they get out of control or when there is so much unsubstantiated information in circulation that it becomes impossible to distinguish fiction from fact.

Anxiety is always liable to generate misinformation. But rumours are more likely to circulate if information given out by management and HR departments is ambiguous and open-ended or if employees feel the organisation is withholding information or resorting to desperate measures. This is why it is crucial to keep employees informed and updated.