There is nothing more toxic to a workplace than gossip. But unfortunately, it’s also one of the most common problems people face on the job. After all, if you’re working full-time, you likely spend more time with your coworkers than you do your spouse or your kids. It’s inevitable that relationships will form and that not everyone will get along. But how we handle personal differences and frustrations is the difference between a healthy, well-functioning office and an office that is suffering from dangerous gossip.
There are some tell-tale ways to tell if you’re engaging in gossip:
1. What you’re sharing isn’t yours to share. One day, you overhear a private, heated phone call between one of your coworkers and their spouse. This is something you are sure your coworker would not want shared. Being aware of this is one of the easiest ways to tell if you’re gossiping.
2. You don’t stick to the facts. Let’s say you approach one of your colleagues and say, “When Sally came in this morning, she burst into tears.” Factually true. But then you continue: “Do you think it’s because she got a terrible annual review yesterday? I heard she didn’t get the promotion.” And there it is - the gossip. Speculating about someone’s motivations, behavior, or background is when it crosses the line from conversation to gossip. (Note: even if it is a fact that Sally burst into tears because she got a terrible annual review, sharing it would violate principle #1).
3. You aren’t sure if it’s true. This relates to point #2. For example, let’s say you think one of your coworkers got plastic surgery. If you aren’t sure it’s true, you can be sure that it’s gossip. (Note: just because something is true, doesn’t mean it isn’t gossip - again, see principle #1.)
4. You’re sharing it because you’re bored, insecure, or you want to tear someone else down. For some people, gossip isn’t even something they realize they are doing! But for others, gossip is a mechanism to make someone else feel bad about themselves, for their own gain. Be honest with yourself about your motivations.
So what can you do in response?
First, try simply changing the subject. If someone pulls you aside to share a piece of gossip, try moving the conversation to something neutral.
Another option is to be a bit more straightforward: “I don’t think we should be discussing that,” or “That isn’t a nice thing to say about someone” are both perfectly adequate responses. It can be hard for some people to say these things and to be so upfront, because often people gossip because they want to bond with us. But by making it clear that you are not someone who will tolerate gossipy conversations, you are decreasing the likelihood that people will come to you to gossip in the future.
If someone is venting to you about a coworker’s behavior, it also may be appropriate to suggest that they speak to that person directly. For example, your coworker Trisha tells you that Sam was rude to her in a meeting for no obvious reason. Instead of speculating as to why, suggest that Trisha have a constructive conversation with Sam. This not only prevents gossip, but it helps resolve the conflict.
But what if you’re the gossip? Ask yourself questions based on the points I outlined above. Is this something the person would want you to share? Are you speculating about someone’s motivations or intent? Are you sure what you’re saying is true?
And finally and most importantly: are you feeling insecure or jealous? Only you can truly know why you’re gossiping, and it may take some deep digging to stop. But if you do, you’ll be able to enjoy a healthier, more productive, and more happy working environment.