Keeping Things Positive | How to Nip Workplace Gossip in the Bud

gossip

When you work with the same people day after day, you’ll inevitably talk about each other. Sometimes this chatter is harmless, but occasionally, it’s toxic—rumors and negative gossip alienate people, erode morale, and contribute to an anxious, divisive workplace.

If you find yourself in a job where gossip is flourishing, you can take steps to minimize its impact, making it a more safe and comfortable environment for everyone.

What’s the harm in workplace gossip?

Think of your team as a group working toward a common goal. Even when you disagree about how to meet this goal, you’re in it together.

First off, not all private conversations are going to be corrosive gossip. Open communication in the workplace is essential, and talking about work-related challenges can reduce stress. If you’re struggling with a project and you know others face the same issue, there’s no need to keep quiet.

Spreading friendly, factual, and work-appropriate information about other employees is also a way to keep everyone in the loop. News about someone’s upcoming job transition, for example, may be helpful to others. And if you and your coworkers have developed close friendships, the flow of back-and-forth information probably comes naturally.

Gossip, on the other hand, can be recognized by a few key traits:

  • Rumors or unconfirmed reports, especially if they’re presented as fact and would reflect poorly on someone if they were true.
  • Negative, belittling, or humiliating talk about a coworker intended to undermine them.
  • Attacks on someone’s personality and character.
  • Shared information that should be confidential.

If you’re not sure if a statement or topic is gossip, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What’s the goal of sharing this information? Do the people who are listening need to hear it?
  • Could the information perpetuate conflict, negativity, or anxiety?
  • Does the person talking have power or authority over the person being talked about?
  • And the old standby: Would you or anyone else say the same thing if the person were in the room?

Gossip can be fun, temporarily. The speaker might enjoy being the center of attention while the listeners feel they’re part of a privileged group. But in the long term, gossip creates an anxious, unhealthy atmosphere for everyone.

Employees can grow accustomed to venting in private rather than addressing conflict at its source, thereby eliminating any possibility of progress. And even if you don’t believe what you hear, simply hearing rumors might make you think differently about the subject of the gossip.

Prevent it

Learn the signs. If someone tells you they have a secret you can’t repeat, and you suspect it’s not need-to-know work info, politely tell them you’re not interested—whether you’re talking in person or online. Gossip dies without an audience, so don’t give it one.

Keep your own chats professional. We all get frustrated with coworkers from time to time. But rather than venting to other people, approach this coworker first if possible. If you do talk to others about the situation, focus on the issue, not the person.

For example, instead of: “X always tries this tactic and it never works,” try: “I think we could approach this problem differently,” or “We can all come up with a better way.”

Think of your team as a group working toward a common goal. Even when you disagree about how to meet this goal, you’re in it together.

And as a rule, consider coworkers’ personal lives off limits for office discussion. Unless the person in question has freely shared the info with everyone at the organization—like news about an upcoming move or parental leave—stay quiet about it, and don’t speculate aloud.

Change the subject. A little deflection might kill gossip before it gets started. When someone divulges something personal about a coworker, bring up a different topic; people will take the cue from there.

Avoid it

Get the facts. Are rumors swirling about a possible major change in the organization, like a round of layoffs? People naturally get anxious when they feel they’re being kept in the dark, and this anxiety can manifest as gossip. Remember that nothing is confirmed until it’s confirmed. If you’re concerned, ask trusted sources who are most likely to have a definitive answer.

Walk away. Leave the room, exit the group chat, or request the email thread stick to professional topics only. A simple “I’m not comfortable talking about [X] this way/discussing people’s personal lives,” gets the message across.

Keep quiet. Sometimes you can’t help overhearing juicy tidbits, but you don’t need to share them with anyone else. If someone asks you a direct question, stick to a noncommittal but accurate response: “I don’t know the truth about that situation,” or “No one knows for sure,” then change the subject.

Get involved to stop it

Say something positive. If a coworker is belittling someone who isn’t there to defend themselves, speak up to advocate for the person. Remind people about a project the person worked hard on, or an admirable trait they demonstrate.

See what the real problem is. Gossipers may be discouraged by other, broader issues at the organization and targeting their irritation at an individual or two. Asking gentle, non-confrontational questions might bring you both closer to a solution.

Try: “Why are you giving me this information?” or “How would you recommend this issue be addressed? “ or “Should we bring [PERSON BEING TALKED ABOUT] in on this discussion for some clarity?”

Modeling positive, professional behavior will always reflect well on you personally. Though you may not be able to shut down the spread of gossip for good, you can minimize its impact and have a better workplace as a result.

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How have you dealt with gossip at work? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.
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