You’ll rarely encounter a workplace where gossip isn’t happening.
Our first instinct is to assume that workplace gossip happens because employees aren’t happy and a little talk here and there eases the pain of the daily grind. However, we think the issue is bigger than that. Most of us just flat-out like to talk about other people, given the right opportunity.
Doing so in the workplace can be a matter of wanting to fit in, of getting back at coworkers with whom you don’t get along, or it may just be a matter of wanting to pass the time with interesting conversation.
Whatever the motivation, gossip exists and it can have some pretty dire consequences if what you say goes beyond the walls of the break room. Relationships are at stake, and relationships can buoy or break an individual or team’s morale.
And when we use the term “relationships,” we’re using it intentionally because gossip involves the person who is the topic of the conversation, as well as the people who are doing the talking.
What to Do When You’re the One They’re Talking About
Wall Street Journal reporter Sue Shellenbarger wrote about gossip from the victim’s perspective in an Oct. 2014 article. She described the typical scenario perfectly.
“The conversation stops when you enter the room. Colleagues shoot sidelong glances as you pass,” Shellenbarger wrote. “The office is abuzz but nobody is talking to you about it—because you’re at the center of the rumors.”
Whether the conversation is focused on a good thing – promotion, for example – or something negative, it’s never a comfortable situation.
Shellenbarger gives the example of a woman who was dating a coworker and eventually became the focus of gossip. At the time, she didn’t do anything about the rumors because she wasn’t doing anything wrong or against the rules.
“Looking back, she says she wishes she had confronted the woman spreading the gossip, because it might have curbed the talk,” Shellenbarger wrote.
When you aren’t doing anything wrong or against company policy, it may very well be in your best interest to confront the source of the gossip.
When you do talk with the source, be sure to use language that won’t put them on the defensive. Shellenbarger spoke with corporate trainer Dana Brownlee, who said “gossip” is a word you should avoid.
Instead, be honest about what’s happening and emphasize what’s true.
If you’re the subject of gossip that’s coming from an unknown source, it may be wise to get human resources involved.
“Human-resources managers can sometimes intervene to curb rumors that are false or harmful,” Shellenbarger wrote. “Most companies have policies that discourage gossip in indirect terms, framed as a requirement that communication among employees be positive and professional.”
What to Do When You Want to Join in But Know You Shouldn’t
While being the subject of your coworkers’ gossip may be unavoidable, joining in on the rumors and conversations about a colleague are easily avoidable, says Inc. reporter John Boitnott. And they should be avoided; your participation can hurt your chances of advancing.
“As a professional with designs on upward mobility, you can’t afford to be associated with the office gossip too closely,” Boitnott wrote. “You may think it’s a good idea to go to lunch with your colleagues, but when you’re seen exiting and entering the office with the office gossip, you may find yourself guilty by association.”
Avoiding situations where you can get sucked in is a matter of awareness:
- Be aware that the conversations are taking place
- Be aware of who the usual instigators are
- Be aware of the power of “Why?”
Rumors have a way of slipping into a conversation in a way that doesn’t seem like gossip. While it may be subtle, be aware of what’s happening in the moment. Is there truth to the rumor? Does the person spreading that rumor have a right to talk about it? Once you’re aware that the rumor is going on, you’ll be aware of who is promoting the rumor. Avoid them. At all costs.
There are also situations where it’s impossible to avoid the person who is spreading the current rumor. If you find yourself cornered and the gossip comes up again, the best way to kill the conversation, Boitnott says, is to ask one question: “Why are you sharing this information with me?
“When you directly address what the person is doing,” he wrote, “you take some of the fun out of it.”
Keep Reading if You’re a Manager and You Want to Diffuse Rumors
The situations we’ve described here focus on relationships between employees. If a cycle of gossip, however, reaches a point where it starts to poison the workplace and impede work, managers and HR may have to get involved.
Managers can avoid these painful and costly situations by being proactive about gossip. In our next post in this series, we’ll talk about five different ways managers can calm a potentially volatile, rumor-based scenario.