Communication Rules

An article in this week’s New York Times, entitled Workplace Gossip? Keep it to Yourself discussed a company called PrintingforLess.com that maintains a strict anti-gossip policy. The firm requires all new employees to sign an “Agreement to Values” form that, among other items, lists gossiping as a firing offense. The article’s author, a current employee of PrintingforLess.com, admitted that she had been hesitant, but optimistic, about the policy when she began working for the firm. She describes a negative attitude at her former places of employment where employees frequently “vented” about coworkers behind each others’ backs.

According to the article, the approach has been very successful and the author states that she feels like she is a member of a team in a way she has not encountered in the past. Instead of gossiping, employees are encouraged to confront each other. In addition to the gossip policy, all new employees also undergo a “communications assessment” which identifies their communication type. The type is then associated with a color and the color displayed on the employee’s nameplate. For example a “red” likes to be talked to directly and given all the facts while a “green” is more sensitive and needs to be approached more carefully.

On the one hand, these policies seem to reflect a legitimate attempt on the part of the firm to improve the worklife of its employees. On the other hand, the changes are so prescribed that it seems it might perpetuate the problem. The latter point recalls an article from last year in Maclean’s magazine called Dumbed Down, which outlines a theory that increased use of the internet, video games, and other technology, while promoting positive growth in certain areas of the brain, is actually stunting frontal lobe development in teenagers making them less able to feel empathy and develop social skills. This research is still controversial but it does raise the question of whether programs like the one at PrintforLess.com will be necessary in order to combat a workforce with increasingly poor communication skills or whether programs like this, by taking communication decisions out of the employee’s hands, are actually creating a greater problem.

In a world before color coded communication guides, people had to read each other and practice empathy to determine the best way to approach each other. Granted, even before today’s technological overload, there have been people who lacked this skill. Some conflict will always be a part of human communication. However, does taking away the assessment portion of this process lead to an overall decline of these skills? Does forbidding gossip out of hand mean that employees need to make fewer and fewer choices about their communication? Do people need to make these sorts of decisions in order to maintain these skills? If the research in the Maclean’s article referenced above holds, these questions will become increasingly important as today’s teenagers move into the workforce, and they will require complex solutions. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these questions.

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