In terms of things that affect the bottom line we think of production, open chair times, collections and delinquent accounts, staff shortages and turnover, and expenses listed on our Profit and Loss (P&L). These are things that we can easily justify and quantify.
But the cost of harboring a toxic workplace culture is something that should be considered. In October 2022, Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that one in five employees left their job in the last five years due to a toxic culture resulting in a turnover cost of $223 billion. (1) I believe that is a relatively low amount considering that most businesses were not at full scale during the pandemic. Regardless, the consequences of a toxic culture fall well outside of profit margins and should raise a red flag to any dentist of its severity.
You may also be surprised that 46% of job seekers value a healthy workplace culture more than compensation. (2) I have witnessed this firsthand through a recent hiring process. Applicants stated that they were drawn to my ad because it spoke of a positive and healthy culture that they were eager to join. And 86% of job seekers will avoid practices known for having a toxic culture. (3) The dental community is expansive, but word travels fast. Think they won’t know, they know!
I have spent a lot of time researching what is at the core of a toxic culture? While there are many attributing factors, I have determined that gossip almost always takes center stage. When it takes root, it is costly on many levels, causing workplace conflict, resulting in loss of production, unproductive communication, damaging to one’s reputation and even litigation just to name a few.
I found it interesting that more than 90% of the workforce engage in gossip. (4) And that 21% of employees do it on a regular basis. (5) Shockingly, one employee can spend up to 65% of their working time gossiping. (6) Gossiping appears to be a recreational sport.
With that in mind, the probability of you having some form of gossip swirling like a tornado in your practice is extremely high. Some, you may already be aware of and others you are not. It is an addictive and destructive behavior building throughout the day into weeks and often involving multiple employees. Sadly, it sometimes includes managers and dentists. It is easy to fall prey to it by chiming in, reacting, justifying, or defending before you even realize what is going on. Trust me, I know because it’s happened to me.
It is the Achilles heel of leadership. As a practice leader, it concerned me when I read that 44% of employees blame the entire leadership team for behaviors such as this that contribute to a toxic work culture. (7) This further solidifies our need for a culture shift.
We know gossip exists, but can we put a price on it?
Here is an example of gossip carried out for a week. For the simplicity of this example, each person will have a rate of pay of $40 per hour.
Allison speaks to Emily for 30 minutes about her speculation that Veronica didn’t show up for work today because she has a hangover. Emily then shares the gossip with Marsha for 30 minutes. Marsha speaks to Veronica for 45 minutes informing her of a rumor circulating about her. Veronica is upset that her coworkers are talking about her and meets with Felicia, the Practice Administrator for 45 minutes. Felicia then discusses the situation with Dr. Williams for an hour.
This is a lot of wasted energy, unproductive work time, and loss of production involving 6 team members, 3.50 hours, and a cost to the practice of $280 for a week. This may seem like a trivial amount but carrying out weekly throughout the year would involve 182 hours at a cost of $14,560.
Allison-Emily $80 x .50 (30min) = $40
Emily-Marsha $80 x .50 (30min) = $40
Marsha-Veronica $80 x .75 (45min) = $60
Veronica-Felicia $80 x .75 (45min) = $40
Felicia-Dr. Williams $80 x 1 (60min) = $80
Team Members: 6 Weekly gossip time: 3.50 Total Salary $280
Thinking back on my time as an employee, I was involved in some gossip episodes. When you are in a leadership role you see the consequences and toll it takes on a practice that you cannot comprehend as an employee. I am not proud of my involvement, but I can say it helped me realize just how much gossip can occur daily and its devastating effects.
Gossip is something no one wants to address. It requires time to investigate and decipher what is truth or fiction, counseling those involved, and documentation. You absolutely must address it, because left untamed it will significantly impact the work culture and practice overall. In any given week there is one form of gossip or multiple forms occurring.
As the gossip escalates, the stress on targeted employees becomes unbearable resulting in increased absenteeism. Or even worse, they decide to resign with or without notice and cost your practice 1.5 – 2 times their annual salary to replace along with additional recruiting costs. (8) Not to mention, the incredible value of knowledge and experience that goes with that employee and having to redistribute their workload to other employees.
Its financial impact can also be felt well beyond what I previously discussed. Employers can face serious ramifications if an employee purposely shares false information that could be considered harassment, discrimination, retaliation, slander, or defamation. If they have knowledge of this, or have received complaints, and fail to take appropriate disciplinary actions it brings on a host of legal issues that dentists often take for granted.
Here is a great example of how gossip significantly impacted one business.
Under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia found an employer liable for failing to effectively address and stop gossip and rumors of an alleged sexual relationship between a female employee and male supervisor in the case of Parker v Reema Consulting Service, No. 18-1206 (4th Cir Feb 8, 2019) (9).
The jury found the employer guilty and awarded the plaintiff $725,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. For reasons unknown, Parker later agreed to accept $50,000 for the bias instead of the amount previously awarded by jury. She was also awarded $33,039 in back pay. The total settlement for this case was $83,039 versus $725,000. (9). I would say the employer was extremely lucky. Even still, there was a significant amount of time spent in preparation and attending court proceedings. It results in a loss of revenue as well as an exorbitant amount in legal fees. Sadly, this is one of thousands of ongoing cases resulting from gossip.
Now you are probably thinking the answer would be to implement a no-gossip policy. If only it were that easy. You should take extreme caution when creating a no-gossip policy as this likely neglects the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA makes it unlawful to punish employees for challenging or complaining about work conditions, perks, or compensation. They often view no-gossip policies as ambiguous, overly broad, and restrictive to employees. It is also well established that an employer violates Section 8(a)(1) when it prohibits employees from speaking to coworkers about certain issues. (10)
As an employer, dentists must know and understand that they have an obligation under the law. If they do not have an HR department, then they must provide their leadership team (managers and supervisors) with the necessary training and knowledge to medicate risk and ensure compliance. Some laws provide that the individual who made the decisions may be personally liable. Under these laws, a manager, supervisor, or human resource professional can be sued in his individual capacity rather than as a representative of the practice. Or they can be named as a defendant in their “official capacity” as an agent of the practice. In this case, the manager or supervisor will have no personal exposure or liability. (11)
In addition to what I have previously mentioned, it should be noted that there are many times where the gossip is about the leaders. Two factors tend to lead to this occurrence.
Lack of workplace transparency. When a leader is more transparent with their team, they tend to have an increased employee engagement. They share information and challenges about their business (within reason) and will often solicit input from their team. This creates a trust-based relationship which helps them better understand based on facts versus gossiping based on their perception.
Ever heard the tagline “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”? Leaders often share information about their family, special events, vacations, investments, etc. They are often connected to a team member’s social channel giving them access to the leader’s personal life. Some team members will not be supportive of the leader’s personal struggles and will not celebrate them on their quality of life. Instead, they will often use it as fuel to ignite gossip or rumors on the leader’s integrity, character, and personal life. Leaders should be friendly, but they must realize that their team members are not their friends. When they blur the lines, it makes it harder to maintain a professional working relationship and to lead their team.
What I have learned throughout my time in leadership is that what you allow will continue. The reality is we cannot fully eradicate gossip from our practice, but we can make a point to minimize it.
Here are a few strategies to assist you and your team deal with office gossip:
- Understand the difference between fact-based conversation, chit chat versus gossip.
- Break the pattern. Simply walk away.
- Redirect the conversation.
- Seek to understand.
- Confront the gossipers.
It must be clear to all employees that gossip, harmful, hurtful, or damaging rumors will no longer be tolerated and that appropriate actions will be taken. It’s simply not worth accepting the behavior of a toxic employee at the risk of losing good employees and experiencing the financial impacts and time they cause to your practice. (12)