Gossip in the Workplace

Gossip needn’t be false to be evil—there’s a lot of truth that shouldn’t be passed around.

Frank A. Clark

Water cooler chats are part and parcel of the modern workplace. But when the talk turns from, “Can you believe what happened on ‘Scandal’ last night?” to “Can you believe what James is up to? What a scandal!” the repercussions can range far and wide. Gossip is a destructive force, whether it’s someone simply passing along a relatively minor unsubstantiated rumor or an orchestrated effort to undermine a co-worker’s reputation.

Gossip can be defined as casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true. As noted above, however, even truthful information passed around inappropriately – when it’s “nobody’s business” – can have a negative impact. In the workplace, gossip represents a genuine threat to productivity and a business’s bottom line. It creates division and mistrust, ruins relationships, and undermines authority and respect. It can literally be a liability, and at its worst, it can ruin reputations, careers, and corporations. A gossipy workplace is a negative workplace that fosters paranoia (“What are they saying about me?”) and does not encourage longevity. Employee turnover is expensive!

Think Before Gossiping

When we gossip to someone, we leave the message that we would gossip about the person we are gossiping to. It breaks trust in that way also.  Ask yourself, “Why am I saying this?” If there is no beneficial reason, don’t say it!

While certain conversations clearly fall into the category of destructive gossip, it can be difficult to determine when a conversation between co-workers crosses the line. Here are a few questions people should ask themselves before continuing in a conversation:

  • Would I say this to his/her face?
  • Does this relate specifically to work and/or their job?
  • Is there a negative undertone? Does this feed into conflict?
  • Does this build up or tear down the person being spoken of?
  • Would I want someone repeating this about me?

Handling Gossip at Work

Although the tendency to gossip is common, there are effective ways to shut down the negative dynamic of gossip in the workplace:

  • Whether you’re an employee, a manager or a business owner, set a good example. Never engage in gossip; walk away, inform the person speaking you’re not comfortable with the conversation, or, better yet, state in no uncertain terms that the subject is inappropriate for the workplace.
  • Maintain a healthy, positive work environment.
  • Encourage positive “gossip” by touting successes, big and small, and publicly recognizing exemplary effort and work, and encouraging others to do the same. People who are in the habit of seeing the positive attributes of co-workers will be less likely to engage in the negative.
  • Management should address gossip formally with a workshop designed to get to the bottom of the issue and, more importantly, prevent further problems by giving employees the tools to communicate effectively. This allows people to address smaller issues directly with each other before they grow into something destructive. Additionally, a genuine connection with someone is the best way to avoid negative talk behind their back – people are less likely to engage in gossip about someone with whom they have a friendly relationship.

Dealing with gossip up-front will prevent a spark from turning into a wildfire. Creating a healthy, proactive workplace and a culture of respect is the best way to reduce the temptation to gossip and keep things running smoothly in the first place. Utilizing Applied Emotional Intelligence, a set of communication skills proven to improve workplace teamwork and success, is an extremely effective option to achieve a harmonious, and gossip-free, corporate culture.

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