Gossip in the Workplace — Stop Before Someone Gets Hurt

Gossip in the workplace. It’s as common as a conference call. What would work be without gossip?

We gossip about our coworkers. We speculate about the company’s future. We share rumors of who received a promotion, who was passed over for promotion.

All the while a nagging little voice in the back of our heads (that’s your conscience) whispers, “This isn’t right.”

We reach for the next donut, lean forward, and whisper, “I’ve heard a rumor…”

Gossip in the workplace. It’s harmless, right?

No, it’s not. Here’s why it isn’t harmless. It can be a sign that something is seriously wrong with your office culture. As a manager and a leader, it’s your job to identify excessive gossip and to take steps to stop it.

Your company’s well-being may depend on it.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Gossip in the Workplace: What Is It?

According to several online dictionary sites, gossip sounds harmless. It is defined as “casual or unconfirmed reports about people…generally made about them while they aren’t present.”

Such a simple, innocent sounding definition of something that can be quite harmful.

What Gossip Is

Gossip is an attempt to shape, mold, and control the world around us. We speculate, and we muse aloud. We base speculation on a germ of fact and embroider around it. We share it with others for confirmation or rejection; we then chew it thoroughly and spit it out, undigested, but in a more palatable form.

Office gossip is chewing on the kernels of truth we glean from the environment. In a healthy office environment, gossip tends to be on the mild side. Gossip may be about who is leaving and who is receiving promotions; good news traveling fast, as they say.

In an unhealthy office environment, however, workplace gossip takes on a very different form. It becomes the sole method by which information, often unpleasant information, makes it way around the office.

News of layoffs, firings, mergers, acquisitions, client gains or losses may all be fodder for gossip. So too may be the personal lives of those working with us.

A Personal Story — Office Gossip Avoided

Many years ago, I attended my first conference while working for Company XYZ. The new CEO of Company XYZ was a public figure, often in the news, and his ex-wife had been in the entertainment industry. She had written a candid and salacious autobiography and included intimate details of their love life in the book.

I was new at Company XYZ, an insecure 30-something eager to fit in with a group of people who seemed so much more sophisticated than I was. But something held me back when, in a shared ride with several new colleagues, I was offered the tell-all book and refused it.

It wasn’t that I was better than others or had a “holier than thou” attitude. It was merely that I did not want the mental images of my new CEO, someone with whom I would share a conference table with at meetings and presentations, implanted in my mind from the poison pen of his ex-wife. Several especially lurid details had my coworkers twittering behind their hands, but I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want that mental image dancing in my mind’s eye the next time I had to sit with him at a meeting.

Several weeks later, I found out that my refusal to engage in workplace gossip about the CEO and the book had led to a favorable review of my character by a senior manager who had been present in the car. Again, I’m not saying this to say that I am better than anyone, but to show you that engaging in workplace gossip is not the innocent pastime people make it out to be. Gossiping about the CEO’s sex life was a ‘hot topic’ in the car, in the lunchroom, and among coworkers that spring. It blew over, as all such gossip does, but it did nothing to help the company, nothing to help the employees, and wasted a lot of time.

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Office Gossip — Time Wasting

That’s one of the critical failures of gossip. It’s a complete waste of time.

We often gossip to control the environment around us. It is an illusion; there is no way any of us can control our futures. Chatting about who is getting a raise and who isn’t just wastes time, time that can be spent on productive tasks at work.

Gossip is also a sign of an unhealthy work environment. If you find your subordinates and colleagues gossiping frequently, it’s a sure sign that clear, honest, communications from the corporate leadership is lacking.

Companies that favor honest, forthright and frequent communication may cut down on the amount of workplace gossip because 1) the information they convey is truthful 2) because they are known for speaking the truth, they are believed 3) when the truth is known, there is no need to speculate. Hence, no need to gossip.

Gossip may be an evolutionary holdover or a ‘valuable social skill’ as I read on Psychology Today, but it a slippery slope which can have unfortunate consequences, especially when it hurts people’s reputations or businesses. At the least, it’s a waste of mental energy and corporate time (both of which could be construed as stealing), and at worst, it can lead people to make decisions, such as leave a company because the false information portrayed in gossip points them in the wrong direction.

Reputations Ruined

Gossip also ruins reputations. A friend who teaches at an elementary school was accused by a student of improper conduct. He was removed from his job, suspended. Announcements were made about the accusation to “warn” other parents.

The accusation was investigated by the state, by the police, and by the school, and found to be completely false. The student, upset and troubled, made a false accusation. He eventually recanted.

Before the police investigation was concluded, how many speculated on this man’s guilt or innocence?

I know I wanted to stop our mutual friends and demand an answer. Was this true? Did he do it or not? What do you know?

I wanted to know not to help my friend or to find out the truth. I wanted to know so that I could feel better about myself and safer in my world. Eventually, the truth came out. But in the meantime, it was difficult to avoid gossiping about the situation.

The same thing can easily happen at work. A spark, a flame, one word becomes an incendiary devices that can destroy a person’s hard-won reputation in an instant.

It’s what makes gossip so very pernicious, so very evil.

We think gossip is so harmless. It’s spoonfed to us by the ever-hungry media who uses it as stories to grab out attention and their advertiser’s dollars. In real life, however, gossip can lead to lost reputations, lost livelihoods, and harm done to innocent people.

Tips to Stop Workplace Gossip

I don’t think you will ever wholly halt workplace gossip. As “The Virtual VP” or one who leads and heals teams for companies worldwide, I’ve seen how gossip continues, even among virtual teams. Some chatter, I think, is healthy and to be expected as long as it does not veer into slander or malicious speculation.

To slow or lower the gossip level, your company needs to work on a few things.

  1. Communications: How frequently are you updating your staff on what is going on at the corporate level? How are you conveying the messages? Consider more frequent face to face meetings, impromptu communications, and other methods to share direct facts.
  2. Honesty: How honest are you with the employees? I’ve worked at some companies where they kept the truth about the company’s fortunes from the employees for a long time for fear of encouraging gossip. Unfortunately, it only exacerbated the gossip. People knew they were being lied to. They knew the truth was hidden. Emphasize honest, open communications.
  3. Truth: Speak the truth at all times at work. If you cannot speak the truth in love, or with kindness, don’t speak at all. Leaders should be especially conscious of speaking the truth at all times except where the truth would hurt others or would harm the company itself.
  4. Openness: Embrace an open-door policy where employees can ask leaders anything, at any time. Encourage questions. The more you encourage questions, the more opportunities you have to halt the gossip train and contain gossip to the innocuous strains such as who wore what to the Emmys or whether the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, is expecting.

George Harrison wrote the song, The Devil’s Radio, after seeing a billboard that said that gossip is the devil’s radio — don’t be a broadcaster. Instead, turn the station to something more positive and productive, especially at work, and avoid the problems that gossip can cause.