How Dirty Rumors Spread in the Workplace

October, 2015

Rumors and their devastating impact inevitably arise from almost all significant public sector change. For instance, when any government department is faced with change the leaders inevitably lock themselves away and do all the figuring out behind closed doors. This old school approach leaves staff pulling their hair out guessing at what ill-fated future lies ahead of them. The rumors are the fuel of that speculative gossip.

According to Nicholas DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia, the three life stages of a rumor are: Construction, Confirmation, and Transmission.

This is an inevitable survival response, and it degrades and sometimes destroys a company’s culture.


Rumor Construction is the stage in which the people who are faced with change begin to compare and contrast all of their ideas that may explain what’s going to happen. They do this while trying to rationalize the mutually exclusive management statements of “this is going to be big” and “it won’t really impact you in the trenches, so don’t worry.”

Meanwhile, additional messages from leadership that say, “we’re working on it”, “it’s still high level” and “it’s complicated” merely confirm the staff suspicions, that they are not important enough to be involved.

Authentic and clear communication at this point, including “here’s what we don’t know”, can and will make a significant difference, although it rarely arrives in time.


The failure of transparency among almost all public sector change management breeds employee-driven “sense-making” of the situation. After a rumor has been constructed by employees to make sense of impending changes, the second stage of rumour development happens - Rumor Confirmation.

Rumor Confirmation is when a 'winner' rises from all the available and depressing imaginary futures and emerges as a group consensus. At this point, rational communication such as "that might not be true” and “let’s give this time” fall to one tenth of what they were in Stage 1.

Future statements from leadership are now greatly outweighed by the strength of group consensus. 

Employees are now gathering evidence supporting their emerging view. Executive communication that could have made a difference in the early stage has almost no shot now and is 'too little, too late.' In addition, senior executives now have half the credibility and trust from staff as what is afforded to local managers.

Positive messages from senior leadership at this point, ironically, become further “proof” of how inauthentic leadership is, has been, and will continue to be.


Public sector leaders will usually take months figuring out the change plan behind closed doors. They will usually spend thousands of dollars on expert advice, have meetings and town halls explaining what is happening and gathering 'feedback' (which will not be acted on).

In this vacuum of inclusion the final and most devastating phase of rumor creation is unleashed.

The final and viral stage, is Rumor Transmission. In one week, a single employee will tell the 'confirmed and accepted' rumor to about 30 other employees. This narrative of aggregate rumors (the org chart, the comp plan, the new bosses, the branding, the offices and equipment, etc.) pick up steam and turn into accepted reality. All management has now lost credibility because everyone 'knows what’s going on' and leadership STILL doesn’t have the respect to “tell us to our face”.

This is the predictable recipe for disaster where lack of information becomes rumor, becomes assumption, becomes truth, becomes viral, becomes reality, becomes another failed change initiative.

About the author 

Vik Maraj

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