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John was shocked. He was hearing the rumor everywhere which he himself had started about Bob being transferred to a lower-level job in a Canadian affiliate. His boss and several peers, some confidentially, had mentioned it to him again today.

True, no one liked Bob, and almost everyone would be glad to get rid of him, but was this right? John had to admit to himself that his half-joking comment to two other employees last week was a mistake. But maybe Bob had it coming.

When John replaced Bob, who had been his temporary supervisor, he had discovered quite by accident that Bob had been keeping a secret file. A clerk who was cleaning out cabinets in preparation for an office relocation had asked him if a folder, which bore Johns name in Bobs handwriting, should be thrown away. Nothing inside the file was serious, but it soon became clear that some less-than-positive events had been carefully recorded in the hope that a larger, more negative one might join them later. At that point, it didnt take a genius to understand Bobs intent – and to recognize the source of disturbing rumors about John himself which had been circulating a few months earlier.

Fortunately for John, fate cured the problem while he was trying to find a way to kill his rumor: Bob was unexpectedly terminated for an unrelated cause. A cynic might say that this case is just another example of office politics as usual. But its worse than that, folks; its the rumor game, a shoddy game indeed.

People like to gossip, eagerly repeating questionable facts. Human nature hasnt changed much over the years; it seems that we are inclined to believe supposed truths, especially negative ones. Samuel Johnson, the English writer and critic, said in 1750, Every whisper of infamy is industriously circulated, every hint of suspicion eagerly improved, and every failure of conduct joyfully published by those whose interest it is that the eye and the voice of the public should be employed on anyone rather than on themselves.

Some look for evidence to confirm what they want to believe anyway. For these individuals, a rumor may be just too good to be checked for accuracy. That was Dan Rathers problem. He wanted so badly to believe forged information that he didnt thoroughly check out a story, bringing journalistic dishonor to both himself and CBS.

Many view rumormongering as a form of entertainment. A rumor is easy to start; all one has to do is plant the seed and watch it grow. Its hard to tell whether it is real news, simple conjecture, or propaganda sparked by partisanship or jealousy. It may begin with a small amount of truth – that helps make it believable. Each time it is repeated, it gains credibility. A rumor travels like wildfire, and its hard to trace.

What can we as managers do to minimize the damaging effects of rumors? A few suggestions:

1. Resist the impulse to repeat rumors yourself.

2. Create an atmosphere which will encourage employees to check with you before rumors are passed on.

3. Try to stop (or at least question) rumors, particularly if you suspect the facts are wrong.

4. Alert upper management that they might need to respond quickly with the real story, even if it is earlier than they would like.

5. Finally, be straightforward in your response; you will be respected for this. If you are limited by confidentiality, say what you can and then promptly provide the correct information after restrictions are lifted.

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