What do you think of office gossip? I don’t know about you but I found working in some office environments similar to reality TV, with participants (employees) pitted against each other for survival of the cunning. When I was younger, I found this quite stressful and but as I got more used to being in this type of environment I discovered ways to survive! If you work in an organisational culture where gossip and rumours run wild, then it can make work a very stressful place to be and you might be wondering how you can navigate your way through it?
In one sense, office gossip is a natural human endeavour because it plays into our desire to belong to a group with similar interests and share stories. It’s important not to forget that stories are an ancient way of communicating meaning and getting people to understand you. That’s the good side!
The dark side of gossip involves the seductive power of negative news, which is especially tempting when it involves people we know. It’s like a car accident on the motorway: we struggle to avert our eyes, knowing full well that we might be forever changed if we continue to stare at it.
We’re curious to know the gory details about others—an inclination that helps us discern friend from foe in the workplace. But gossipers have personal agendas, and they rarely adhere to facts. Instead, they seek to influence us by delivering biased, skewed and often false stories.
Once their words are unleashed, it’s difficult to “un-ring the bell,” especially if you haven’t had time to confront the reality, facts or person. Meanwhile, an individual’s reputation has been tainted—perhaps permanently.
My advice is to avoid getting involved. Unless you’re careful, you can turn into one of the following types of gossipers:
When you’re new, gossipers will take stock of your appearance, demeanour and position within the company to determine your gossip threshold. This is the time to establish clear boundaries. You have four possible response options:
a) Stop them before they share, and tell them you don’t want to participate in gossip.
b) Listen, but don’t say anything.
c) Listen and ask questions; then, respond positively, negatively or neutrally.
d) Listen and share what you hear with others, asking them what they think.
Whenever possible, try to interact with gossipers in a neutral environment, with other co-workers present. Keep your position on a topic as impartial as possible.
Consider throwing gossipers’ questions back at them, with the preface: “I really don’t know. What do you think?”
Usually, newbie gossip is temporary, if you can ride it out you will be okay. The trouble is when we start a new job we are often so keen to make friends and be part of the new company that we are vulnerable to this type of manipulation.
As a non-gossiper, you could eventually become classified as a “kiss-ass” or “company man.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you don’t want to be viewed as yes-man/woman in relation to your boss. When gossip is flung in your direction, determine who instigated it and why. You can then go to the source and ask questions before rumours spread and do more damage.
Gossipers hate being confronted and pressed for details, especially when you have a direct line of communication to the boss. They don’t want their accusations to be repeated, nor be caught in a lie. If you are going to confront them, remember it is important to remain assertive. It is best to prepare yourself to do this and not to do it when you are angry or hurt.
If you soak up everyone’s gossip, you develop a tolerance to it. You may believe that listening doesn’t make you a participant, but gossipers are using you as their landfill. In truth, the act of listening—even if you don’t share and spread rumours—encourages the gossipers to continue. They assume you want to hear what they have to say and tacitly approve of their actions. In short, there’s no such thing as innocent listening.
Gossipers develop “students” who soar past the level of sponge and become card-carrying members of the gossip club. If you find yourself in this position, it’s difficult to reverse. Consequently, co-workers and colleagues will be on their guard when sharing information with you. As time passes, you will begin to gossip without even knowing you’ve become a full-fledged gossiper.
Non-gossipers should strive to attain neutraliser status, which means you can deflect gossip and pacify others by remaining calm and non-judgmental. Neutralisers distinguish themselves among their peers via their Teflon-like coating, which repels gossip. People may still try to co-opt you into gossiping, but your consistent deflection will spoil their fun. Wisely choose opportunities to speak. Your employer and co-workers will learn to respect your opinion on matters that count.
Also, you need to understand that office gossip can be so commonplace that it can be hard to notice. Some of it may occasionally be positive, and this can then allow confidential information and conjecture to become an accepted part of everyday life.
Once this happens, you may forget that office gossip is inherently harmful and unproductive—a behaviour that can have a profound effect on workplace energy and morale. Employees who work in a culture of gossip may feel insecure and threatened by those who revel in it.
Gossip can destroy one’s sense of community, thus inhibiting any potential for teamwork. And when out-of-control gossip includes disparaging remarks about gender, race or religion, it can violate diversity standards and be grounds for termination of the person’s employment. I have sadly had to mediate in a number of relationship breakdowns and in many of these situations gossip has been at the heart of the issue. You do need to raise it with your boss and ask them to take action to stop this unacceptable behaviour. Finally, remember that if your company has an HR department you should be able to talk to them about what is happening. If it is impacting you then it is likely to be impacting others too!
It takes courage to stand up and say “no” to gossip. If you struggle with saying No to people you might find this blog helpful
People are often reluctant to speak up, fearing they’ll be labelled. But when you have the courage to do the right thing, your positive approach can snowball and encourage others to help extinguish gossip.
We spend a great deal of time at work so it is good to play your part in creating positive and constructive work culture. You do not want to limit your potential for development by becoming involved in a negative environment like this.
I’d love to hear what you think. I work with people who have been on the negative side of gossip and who need to rebuild their own assertiveness and self-regard so if you have experienced this then please contact me via email firstname.lastname@example.org
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