Rather than fight the office grapevine -- often unfairly stigmatized as an inaccurate rumor mill--managers might well profit by learning from it and even using it informally to disseminate information to the troops quickly.
"Only the use of a firm's public-address system gets information out faster than the grapevine," says Vanessa Dean Arnold, associate professor of business communication at the University of Mississippi, who made a two-year study of the subject. "They can't stop it, so the best thing to do is to use it."
Managers are often fearful of the grapevine, says Arnold in a recent article for Management World magazine, because they "see their influence decreased as they lose control of information flows." They also view it as discontented grumbling.
Arnold contends, however, that the grapevine has its positive aspects. It is, for one thing, the employes' way of finding out what is happening at their work place--a subject of vital concern--when nobody at the top is telling them what is going on. And it can play a big part in promoting "company morale and productivity."
An organizational grapevine, she finds, tends to have these characteristics:
* Penetrates the tightest company security. "Employes often learn about new developments before management even makes a formal announcement."
* "Thrives" in the absence of official news. If the subject is important to the staff, and nothing is coming from company channels, "You can bet the grapevine will hum, if only to speculate."
* More active "during periods of excitement and insecurity." If the company keeps shut up on such a hot topic as staff cutbacks, "Employes will fill in information gaps with their own perceptions and conclusions."
* Doesn't necessarily follow the organizational hierarchy. Managers may hear news of other departments from their secretaries.
* Often quite accurate. "Messages concerning promotions, procedures and transfers--topics of utmost importance to workers--have been found to be almost always true."
* Equally participated in by both men and women.
* Just as active at the executive level, "if not more so," as with the rank and file.
* "Liaison individuals"--most in supervisory positions--between those who have information and those who do not.
From the employes' point of view, "The grapevine fills a communication need," says Arnold. "It translates formal pronouncements into their own language, spreads the information about job performance and employment opportunities and may make the work place cohesive."
Employers can use the grapevine as a morale builder to pass along "positive comments people make about the organization." Or if, for example, the staff feels threatened by impending computerization, management can ease fears by feeding the grapevine with accurate information. The grapevine "often has more impact than an official announcement."
And "by tapping the grapevine," adds Arnold, "managers get feedback concerning the ideas, feelings and attitudes of employes, and learn about situations of which they are unaware." If harmful rumors are circulating, they often can be "squelched before they can create damage to the morale of an organization."
Arnold raises one other intriguing aspect of the grapevine--its value as a check on unwise management actions:
"The grapevine encourages managers to plan and act more carefully than they would otherwise, because it provides a check and balance on poorly conceived plans, emotional decisions and the rise of favoritism. Not only can the informal organization undermine such actions, but the grapevine could eventually get to the person's boss."
For a copy of "Harvesting Your Employe Grapevine," send a self-addressed envelope with 37 cents in stamps to "Employe Grapevine," Administrative Management Society, 2360 Maryland Rd., Willow Grove, Pa. 19090. ------
RELOCATION HELP: Though industry reports suggest most companies are trying to reduce the number of employe transfers because of the high cost ($30,000 to $50,000 per employe), a new study concludes the opposite may be the case.
Catalyst, a New York-based organization that studies women in the work place, recently surveyed 70 Fortune-1,300 companies (subscribers to its monthly publication) on corporate relocation practices. "Despite a continuing intention to cut back on relocation," says the study, funded by Bekins Van Lines, "it appears, however, that the number is more likely to plateau or even increase."
If that's the case, what financial incentives do companies provide employes they uproot?
* Preliminary visit to the new location: 79 percent of the sampled companies.
* Preliminary visit for the spouse and/or family: 63 percent.
* Interim living, moving and transit costs: 97 percent.
* Allowance for the added mortgage interest incurred when buying a new home: 87 percent.
* Arrangement for purchasing the employe's unsold home: 67 percent.
* Additional assistance above formal policy to be negotiated by individual employes: 44 percent.
* "Some" assistance in relocating the spouse: 54 percent.
On that last item, Catalyst found it "encouraging" that companies are recognizing the need for helping the spouse find a job--"because the spouse's career is tremendously important to two-career families both economically and psychologically." But it also said it was discouraged, in light of the increasing number of two-career families, that the services "appear to be so conditional and informal."
What happens when an employe refuses to relocate? Thirty-nine percent of the companies said it would depend on the employe's value to the company. In a majority of the companies surveyed, however, the relocation refusal rate is less than 10 percent.
Says Catalyst: "It is not surprising that employes are confused about management's attitudes and automatically assume a negative effect on their career if they do turn down a relocation offer."