IN PRAISE OF OFFICE GOSSIP It ties people together, gets out the word, and lets underlings blow off steam. But don't do it wrong.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Just try to imagine what a corporation devoid of office gossip would be like. Formal reports with all the spiciness of, say, a quarterly earnings statement march methodically up and down the ranks. Heads still roll from time to time, of course, but bystanders politely avert their gaze. No one knows anything about anyone else beyond a bare minimum strictly related to work. Zombie Corp., in other words, and about as likely to materialize as the Night of the Living Dead. People, to the extent that they're interested in other people -- which is to say, to the extent that they're fully human -- love to gossip. Where two or three are gathered together in friendship, unofficial conversation about individuals and their doings is practically inevitable. Our society has begun to recognize these truths and accept the phenomenon. A Yale professor of literature, Patricia Meyer Spacks, recently published a 300-page paean to wagging tongues; in it she noted that magazines as diverse as Time and McCall's have discovered gossip's virtues. What might seem more surprising is that the business world, bless its little notalways-up-with-the-latest-trends heart, also appears to be embracing this new realism. The let's-not-be-coy attitude of Howard Bratches, an executive | recruiter with the Thorndike Deland firm in New York City, is becoming more typical. Asked if there's office gossip at his shop, he replies, ''Of course -- we gossip about clients, internal organization, outside business, and people in the office.'' John R. Kiley, a broker with Drexel Burnham Lambert, says he, like other citizens of the small town that is Wall Street, gossips ''at lunch . . . all the time.'' While admitting that they gossip, most managers still aren't willing to see such an admission in print. They also may be a bit uncertain about whether gossip is a force for good or ill. But if these execs haven't thought systematically about the role gossip plays in their organizations, a few of their advisers -- consultants and business school professors -- have. These experts cite many ways that gossip makes the working world not only more interesting to its denizens, but also a lot more humane. First, gossip supplements the official channels of communication, which often run dry indeed. As an early warning system, gossip allows people to think through in advance what they will do if the rumors become the awful truth. Subordinates may get an inkling of what the boss is wrestling with, and this long before he can make a formal announcement; the boss may hear whispers of bad news that no one has the guts to break to him straightaway. Management may even deliberately use what is sometimes termed the gossip chain to informally get out the word. A West Coast businessman cites the example of a huge corporation headquartered in San Francisco: top executives there, he claims, relay messages downward by filling the ears of select, certified-reliable gossips called pass-on-ers. At other companies, trial balloons may be floated on these hot winds. Gossip can serve as a medium for forging a corporate culture, for handing down values and acculturating newcomers. The retelling of company war stories, exemplary tales of how this old-timer came up with a new product or that one moved mountains to better serve a customer -- this too is a kind of gossip. Alan Wilkins, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University in Utah, has studied storytelling at such companies as Hewlett-Packard. He notes that at that company, managers practically force people to attend birthday parties and coffee breaks so the troops will exchange ideas. Does anyone seriously imagine, though, that at coffee breaks or those poolside corporate beer busts in Silicon Valley, all the troops talk about is how to make a better microwidget? People gossip principally about other people, and what a raffish, insubordinate, utterly irresistible impetus it is. While managerial prudes may be loath to recognize the fact, companies can benefit even from the most unauthorized strain of talk -- the kind that focuses on personalities, peccadilloes, and private doings. As Professor Spacks points out, such let- down-your-hair conversations usually foster a sense of closeness between the participants, who typically number no more than two or three. After all, the word gossip derives from the Old English godsib -- as in sibling -- one's own godparent or a person close enough to serve as the godparent of one's child. In chatting with fellow gossips an individual can speculate on others' behavior, think through his or her response, and test out that response on others. The exercise is probably salutary: gossiping co-workers sharpen their powers of observation and, just possibly, refine their understanding of people. This may be particularly comforting, and educational, to folks who don't have much say in running things. Students of gossip note that it flourishes among the relatively powerless -- secretaries? -- partly because it affords an outlet for angry feelings toward higher-ups that otherwise might have to go unexpressed. Managers have to be a bit careful about how they gossip. Adela Oliver, whose firm, Oliver Human Resource Consultants, helps companies with personnel matters, warns, ''You want to have access to the gossip chain, but you don't want to be perceived as part of the chain.'' It's helpful to get the early warning, but if your fellow honchos see you as a hopeless blabbermouth, they might be reluctant to trust you with confidential information. What you need to get into the chain is a loyal subordinate or colleague who will share the news with you without trumpeting your interest around. Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter, whose recent book Power and Influence reflects hundreds of hours observing executives in action, notes that the best managers are selective in using gossip. Concerned not only about their ties to underlings but also about underlings' ties to one another, these paragons may pass along news likely to improve relationships in the organization or to burnish someone's reputation. On the other hand, they'll stamp out gossip that might be harmful to reputations or personal ties. These straight arrows also refuse to gossip ill of rivals: ''The risk you take with talking of others that way,'' Kotter says, ''is that some people will see it for what it is -- a power tactic, a subtle attempt to lower the other person's prestige. They'll walk away thinking less of you.'' WISE GOSSIPS, managerial or not, also know there's only so much truth in what goes around. An investment banker who says gossip is important in his business sounds a note of caution, ''The main problem is the timing; the timing is usually all wrong'' -- either way ahead of a deal, or hopelessly late. Only a fool fails to weigh gossip against information available from other sources. And if you find yourself being gossiped about? These days your best bet is usually just to ignore it. You are living in the late 20th century -- not in some closed-room Victorian universe where people worry endlessly about being thought respectable. There seem few areas left where a manager's reputation can be seriously undermined by gossip. One example, admittedly unfair: a woman executive can still be compromised more than a male by reports she's having an affair with someone else in the organization. Remember too, even in the face of the most salacious gossip, that a certain compliment, however backhanded, is being paid you. Folks don't gossip about people they deem unimportant, or don't care about at all. Oscar Wilde said it best: ''There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.''