Workplace gossip is proven to erode trust in management and harm company culture1https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0149206316632057?journalCode=joma, leading to reduced productivity2https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/3/912, lost profits, and negative team morale1https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0149206316632057?journalCode=joma. In extreme cases, gossip can turn to slander, harassment, employee turnover, and legal consequences.
Here is a drama-free guide to stop workplace gossip in its tracks.
What is Workplace Gossip? (& Why It’s Harmful)
Workplace gossip is talking negatively about colleagues’ traits, personal lives, or work tasks behind their backs. This form of bullying or harassment includes:
- Discussing a coworker’s private matters with other staff members.
- Propagating half-truths or lies about a colleague or boss.
- Spreading rumors about someone’s sex life, legal affairs, medical status, alleged policy violations, or personal matters.
- Sharing other private or negative information that someone has not consented to be shared.
Officially, sociologists define negative workplace gossip1https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0149206316632057?journalCode=joma as “negative, informal, and evaluative talk in an organization about another member who is not present.”
In other words, talking about your excitement for your colleagues’ marriage engagement or speculating that someone is getting a well-deserved promotion is not technically gossip because these are positive remarks that could be discussed in front of those individuals.
However, commenting under your breath about your boss’ purported affair or having a lunchtime discussion about why a colleague does not deserve a promotion would be considered malicious gossip because they are negative and the people involved are not present to defend themselves.
Clearly, these extreme examples lie on opposite ends of the spectrum. So how do you determine when idle chit-chat spills over into gossiping territory? When the line between innocent conversation and gossip seems blurred, ask yourself:
- Does the conversation focus on the negative or celebrate the misfortune of others? It’s gossip.
- Would it be OK to have this conversation in front of the person being discussed? If not, it is probably gossip.
- Could these stories, speculations, or rumors cause harm to someone’s reputation? If so, it’s probably gossip.
- Are you sharing information that you acquired through hearsay or eavesdropping? If the information wasn’t divulged to you directly from the person involved, it is likely gossip.
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How to Address Workplace Gossip: 6 Actionable Tips
Rumors and misinformation can harm everyone in the workplace. As a gossiper lights the spark, the vicious cycle of gossip can spread like wildfire and rapidly destroy team morale and productivity. Here are 6 science-backed ways to stop gossip in its tracks:
1. Ignore the gossip (or change the subject)
Gossipers crave attention. When you withdraw your attention, their toxic words lose power. If someone is gossiping about others to you, refuse to engage with them. As soon as they start to speak negatively about someone else, shut down the conversation in its tracks by saying, “I have absolutely no opinion, and this is none of my business.”
Your lack of interest in the hearsay makes a gossiper feel powerless. This tactic shuts down the slander at the source. It also excuses you from any responsibility or negative effects of the gossip that could occur down the line. Stay focused on your work and any time a slanderous conversation topic is introduced, simply stay silent or change the subject.
In this example, notice how quickly you can shut down a coworker’s gossip by asking a conversation-starting question:
- Emily: “Hey, how’s your day going? Can I sit here?”
- Leah: “Sure! It’s been a long week with all these changes in management. But I’m doing great; how are you?”
- Emily: “Eh, not the best. The new VP is such a prick. Did you hear about how he got fired from his previous job? Apparently, he had some major conflicts of interest.”
- Leah: “Honestly, that’s none of my business. So what are you up to this weekend?”
Key Caveat: In extreme cases of office gossip and slanderous rumors, ignoring the gossip may not do any good. If gossip is harming your mental health, team productivity, or reputation, it is important to confront the situation by reaching out to your boss or HR and seeking professional help such as a therapist or mediator.
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2. Set clear boundaries
Boundaries are the rules of your relationships. Your boundaries tell people how you will allow them to treat you, including their power over you in a gossiping situation. Psychologists have found that gossipers tend to lack self-esteem3https://www.proquest.com/docview/1433067295, which can lead them to engage in boundaryless discussions about the private lives of others.
When you set boundaries, you are making a vote for the type of person you want to be and the core values you uphold in your professional and personal life.
If you are the victim of gossiping, you can set boundaries with phrases like:
- “I do not discuss my private life at work.”
- “I do not allow people to say untruthful things about me.”
- “I know we are not best friends, but spreading false rumors about me is not a way to resolve our issues.”
- “If you continue to talk about me this way, I will have to report you to HR.”
If a gossiper is constantly coming to you to discuss negative things about your coworkers, set your boundaries by saying:
- “I really prefer to focus on the positive.”
- “I’m not comfortable talking about other people.”
- “That is none of my business. Let’s talk about [change the subject].”
- “I do not want to talk negatively about other people.”
- “If you continue to talk about [person/topic], I can’t eat lunch with you anymore.”
Learn more in this detailed guide on How to Set Boundaries: 5 Ways to Draw the Line Politely.
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3. Create a company culture of “positive gossip”
Positive gossip may seem like an oxymoron, but this tip is backed by robust science. If you are a manager or business owner, your approach to workplace gossip is the foundation for employee interactions.
Research shows that supervisors who engage in negative gossip4https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JMP-04-2017-0159/full/html about subordinates are perceived as less trustworthy (no surprise there). But this doesn’t mean you can’t talk about employees. The key is to keep it positive.
Rule of Thumb: When interacting with employees or subordinates, managers should only speak positively of other employees.
For example, let’s say you are a marketing team manager. During a casual lunch with a few of your employees, you mention that Julia (a staff member who is not present) has been doing an amazing job on her recent sales pitches. Some of the team members agree, and you all share a light conversation about what makes her approach so successful.
This may send up a red flag— a manager is talking with other staff members about an employee who is not present! Surprisingly, research shows4https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JMP-04-2017-0159/full/html that this could actually be beneficial. A staff member may approach Julia later and say, “You won’t believe all the nice things our boss said about you at lunch! Let me tell you about it.”
This example is considered positive gossip, and it can improve the quality of supervisor-subordinate relationships. When a manager has positive informal conversations with staff members, they are perceived as better leaders.
Moreover, the study found that leaders are less ostracized amongst subordinates because they can be trusted to say positive things about team members when they aren’t present. This is the foundation for positive company culture. Learn more about How to Create an Incredible Company Culture with Exceptional Hiring with Zach Suchin.
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4. Remain neutral
If you are the victim of gossip, it is natural to feel angry, upset, or frustrated. After all, this is your livelihood and your reputation on the line! However, a reaction with antagonism could do more harm than good. Instead of fighting fire with fire, adopt an attitude of neutrality.
Internally, you can validate your own emotions by reminding yourself the gossiper’s opinions are untrue and are only a reflection of their own insecurities.
Externally, you can avoid arguments by approaching the situation using diplomacy or even humor. Consider these tactics:
- When you are feeling emotional or upset about the situation, confide with trusted friends and family outside of work. Do not perpetuate the gossip cycle by discussing the gossip with other coworkers.
- Sort through your emotions and learn the art of emotional regulation before confronting anyone. The calmer you are, the less power the gossiper has over you.
- Avoid trying to prove yourself. Instead, let the truth be revealed through your professionalism and management-level action.
- Do not start an argument or engage in aggressive communication with the gossiper(s). Heightened emotions can only make matters worse.
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5. Openly communicate with perpetrators
It’s undoubtedly difficult to “be the bigger person” when your reputation or career feels threatened. However, the ability to calmly and professionally confront a gossiper is the pinnacle of emotional intelligence.
If you need to nip a rumor in the bud, approach perpetrators with these tips in mind:
- Script and rehearse: Before confronting a gossiper, brain dump everything you are thinking and feeling onto a page in your journal or phone notes. Let all the anger, shame, and intense emotion pour out. When you’ve expelled all the frustration regarding the gossip or rumors, go back and remove anything that seems aggressive or unproductive. Edit your notes into a short script that you can rehearse in the mirror.
- Tell them how their behavior is impacting you: The most obvious issue with gossip is its ability to harm your professional reputation. Sometimes, you can appeal to a gossiper’s empathy by explaining how their actions have impacted you. For example, you may say, “This rumor is really hurting my mental health and making it very difficult for me to do my job, which is having a ripple effect on our entire team.”
- Stay calm: Practice deep breathing and relaxation before approaching this difficult discussion. Create a strategy (like a deep breath or internal mantra) to use if the conversation becomes heightened. Your non-toxic version of “revenge” can come from maintaining your composure even if the other person becomes flustered or defensive.
- Kill ‘em with kindness: When approaching a gossiper, pay particular attention to your vocabulary. Cordial discussions may prevent further drama. Kindness can be very disarming to someone who is acting in a hateful way.
- Invite a third party to witness: In particularly intense gossiping or harassment situations, it is important to have documentation and witnesses for every conversation. Consider inviting an HR representative or manager to sit with you as you confront a gossiper.
Want more great tips? Check out our goodie here:
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6. Let the boss know
Many people avoid contacting management or HR because they fear being deemed a “tattletale.” However, extreme gossiping situations call for managerial-level intervention. Most companies want to encourage a positive workplace because culture is directly linked to profits and productivity. There is no shame in reporting workplace gossip to your boss or HR department. In fact, they may thank you for helping them improve their policies!
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Key Takeaways: Beat Workplace Gossip With Emotional Intelligence and Positivity
Unfortunately, it is human nature to talk about other people. But that does not mean people are justified in spreading harmful information or false rumors. The key to preventing workplace gossip is to conquer the gossip by building emotional intelligence and positive communication. If you’re dealing with gossip or slander, remember to:
- Avoid giving gossipers attention: Negative words lose their power when nobody pays attention to them. No matter how small the gossip may seem, you can stop it at the source by ignoring gossip and changing the subject.
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”—Eleanor Roosevelt
- Set firm boundaries: Whether you’re the team manager, the victim of gossiping or the innocent bystander, you have the power to set boundaries around what you will discuss with other people.
- Practice positive gossip: If you want to talk about your colleagues, do so in a positive light. Negative gossip can be outshined by the kindness of compliments and praise for others, even when they aren’t in the room.
- Build emotional intelligence: Master your emotions so you can avoid workplace drama. Gossiping situations can quickly escalate into dramatic confrontations and even aggression. The key to resolving issues is developing emotional regulation and communication skills that help you stay calm in difficult situations.
Need more? Here is the complete guide to Solving Workplace Conflict in 8 Steps.
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