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Dealing with workplace gossip

These six tips can help when you encounter malignant chatter amongst colleagues.

Workplace gossip is widespread and inevitable, something you will almost certainly encounter and should be prepared to navigate. Although it isn’t always harmful, gossip is a potential threat both to you and to your organisation’s culture.

“Gossip cannot be eradicated through personnel management and interventions,” said Kirk Chang, Ph.D., professor of human resource management at the University of Salford, Manchester, UK, and a co-author of a research study on gossip in the workplace. “It’s important that employees understand how to address it proactively.”

Gossip sometimes serves a hidden agenda. “It can be used as an intelligence agent, to gather views from different parties,” said Chang. But generally, it emerges spontaneously, its negative influence blooming in the absence of a healthy organisational culture.

“People at the individual contributor level are always going to talk,” said Joshua Miller, a certified executive coach and author based in the San Francisco area. “And if they have poor managers who aren’t cascading information down to them, the rumour mill begins.”

There’s an argument that innocuous gossip can be a plus, “an icebreaker, a social glue linking diverse parties together”, as Chang put it. But unchecked, observed Miller, “Gossip will erode the fabric and DNA of an organisation, breeding conflict, decreasing morale, and crippling teamwork.”

So when you encounter the toxic variety — typically, with the gossiper disparaging and ridiculing others to attract attention and, often, to enlist support for grievances — you’re best off having strategies to draw on.

“From the corporate side, creating an environment of transparency, collaboration, and humility is the best way to avert destructive gossip,” Miller said.

Here are some expert tips on avoiding corrosive gossip in the workplace.

Remove yourself from the conversation. Remember that just listening to gossip actually supports and promotes it — the audience is always part of the performance, whether it’s in the office kitchen or by the copy machine. “When you encounter gossip, you can simply say, ‘I’m not comfortable listening to this,’” said Miller. “You can also say, ‘Would you be talking like this if X were here? It makes me wonder what you say about me when I’m not around.’” If the gossiper persists, you’ve set the stage for your departure.

Say something positive about the person under attack. This is a sure-fire way to derail the effort and head things off in a healthier direction. Similarly, if the gossip is grievance-based, you can change the tone of the conversation by turning it into a discussion of possible solutions. “Engage the gossiper in a conversation that lets them tell you what’s really bothering them, and then be understanding but firm in your responses,” Miller said.

Be diplomatic. If you confront a gossiper, it’s best to criticise the activity, not the person; it’s both more effective and more professional. “If you feel that’s not possible,” Miller said, “contact your manager and/or your HR department. Here, too, focus on the issue, not the individual.”

Don’t contribute to gossip unwittingly. “Don’t say anything about someone you wouldn’t say to their face,” advised Miller — an old, simple adage, but a wise one. “Don’t write it in an email if you wouldn’t want it published.”

Avoid the gossiper. “It’s a no-brainer, but sometimes we forget that we always have that option,” Miller said. If you notice a persistent troublemaker, take steps to interact with that person as little as possible, always remembering to maintain common courtesy.

Model your company’s best values. Is there a leader in your organisation whom you admire and who is doing a good job of fostering the culture? “You can embody that person’s presence and spirit by asking yourself, ‘What would he or she do?’” Miller said. “It will align you with their values and distance you from any bad norms, including gossip.”

The above tips will help you stem gossip’s spread, but your day-to-day manner makes a difference, too. Keeping your conversations business related most of the time and civil all the time and keeping your focus on your job are hallmarks of professionalism that send a strong signal you’re not available for the corrosive distraction of gossip.

John Lehmann-Haupt is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.