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The Truth About Trash Talk: How to Deal With Gossip in the Workplace

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The Truth About Trash Talk: How to Deal With Gossip in the Workplace
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The Truth About Trash Talk: How to Deal With Gossip in the Workplace

“Pst! He isn’t paying his child support!”

“Pst! Did you hear what happened last week? This project’s getting scrapped.”

“Pst! They’ve been together a lot lately. That can only mean one thing…”

Wink, wink.

It’s easy to spot workplace gossip. People speaking in hushed tones at the end of the hallway, or ending conversations abruptly when you walk into the break room, are sure signs that something secretive is being discussed.

Whether we like it or not, gossip is part of our everyday life.

Rumors that flutter around the office, alighting in one ear and then another, may look feathery and harmless.

While in fact, they can deliver a heavy blow. Patterns of spreading malicious gossip break down team dynamics, deaden company culture, and hurt professional reputations.

But gossip isn’t entirely bad. Some of it is pretty harmless, and participating in some gossip circles may even help you.

From the good, the bad, to the downright ugly, let’s look at the impact of drama, and how to deal with office gossip in the workplace.

The Good Gossip in the Workplace

The Good

Some forms of gossip are pretty much unavoidable and can even help us in the long run. Let’s look at a few.

Benign Chatter

Any time a team casually gathers together at the end of the week and exchanges stories, the conversation eventually turns around to discussing people. Who doesn’t want to hear about things that happened back in the day, who’s dating who, and the details of a coworker’s divorce?

This sort of banter, so long as it’s light and honest, helps build rapport. In order to create cohesion in a team, you need to know who you’re working with. When you know personal details about other people, it makes them more relatable.

“Good to Know” Gossip

Do you know those people who always seem to be abreast of what’s going on? They know who’s leaving the company and why, which managers to avoid working under, and why the office “it” couple just broke up.

We can learn all sorts of things from water cooler discussions that human resources would never be able to reveal.

It’s very helpful to have this sort of professional information under our belt. When we know about new projects on the horizon, a department with turnover issues, and a toxic manager, it’s much easier to safely navigate a workplace environment.

Of course, it’s always important to take this sort of information with a grain of salt. The problem with playing workplace telephone is that the story may be really skewed by the time it reaches your ear.

Helpful Small Talk

Sometimes, when people sit around talking about coworkers, they come up with the nicest things to say, such as: “He’s such a laugh,” “She’s been awesome to have on the team,” and “I wish I had a manager like him. He seems so kind.”

This sort of talk serves to build other people’s professional reputations. A workplace culture that accentuates people’s contribution also boosts team morale and creates a positive vibe around the workplace. It increases psychological safety, because people feel valued and appreciated.

Although as a general rule discussing people isn’t the best way to pass time, gossip can serve a purpose. When it helps you get to know another person, improves someone’s reputation, or helps you to navigate office politics, you can’t lose.

The Bad Gossip in the Office

The Bad

Some workplace gossip serves no constructive purpose at all. Here are a few examples.

The Juicy Story

Let’s face it. People’s personal lives are fodder for some good stories. It’s easy to relish in the details a divorce, a scandalous affair, or a business plan gone awry.

However, when we dish out the lives of coworkers for the sheer enjoyment of it, the company culture declines. Leaders who give license to this sort of behavior aren’t looking out for the well-being of employees. No one feels psychologically safe when everyone’s personal lives get drug through the mud from time to time.

If you work in a culture where gossip runs high, let the stories stop with you. Don’t play a part in perpetuating pointless, juicy gossip.

It’s good to have a few phrases in your pocket to deflect slanderous conversations. Statements like “Well that’s a juicy tidbit. Maybe let’s resume this another day. Can you look at these reports for me right now?” or “I’m making a commitment to being more positive, this conversation isn’t helping,” keep idle, harmful chatter at bay.

Jealousy Over Position and Pay

Compensation is one of the things employees most enjoy discussing with each other. Sometimes they’ll huddle right outside the bosses door on payday, comparing paychecks and griping.

This sort of gossip easily leads to friction and rivalry between employees, and suspicion toward the boss. People wonder why they’re being paid less than someone else, and why certain people receive raises.

Transparency puts an end to this kind of gossip. When a company creates benchmarks around pay and raises, and posts them clearly, all puzzlement goes out of the issue. And when it states policies around promotion, everyone understands why one candidate is chosen over another.

In sum, destructive gossip harms company culture and the spirit of a team. Sometimes, it just has to stop with you. Transparency also puts divisive chatter to rest.

The Ungly Gossip in the Workplace

The Ugly

Some forms of workplace gossip are downright abusive, and destructive to a workplace environment.

Power Play Innuendo

A certain type of person might be compelled to create a salacious story with a deliberate scheme behind it. By spreading a dirty rumor about someone, they hope to sabotage that person’s career and advance their own.

This sort of behavior spells disaster for a company. For a culture to thrive, advancement and promotion need to be based on merit, not silly workplace rumors.

Most companies have policies about gossip in the workplace. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to document. If you happen to have written documentation of a malicious rumor, it’s important to report it to human resources so they know about the problem.

Anyone who uses gossip in such a manner needs to receive a stern warning from the manager as well.

Grapevine Work Culture

In some workplaces, you have to be on the gossip chain in order to know about things like upcoming projects and new hires. Rather than attending a weekly meeting, you receive office updates by tagging along to “coffee chats” with a group of coworkers.

When rumors are the only ways to discover basic things about the workplace, it means a company culture has gone toxic. Gossip flourishes when people don’t learn critical information through proper channels like email and company meetings.

In order to fix systemic gossip, a leader needs to facilitate a transparent culture. This entails regularly holding meetings that keep the entire company abreast of all the goings-on within the company. It’s also critical to seek feedback and create policy around it.

Personal Smears

It’s never fun when people gossip about you. Not only is it hurtful, but it can impact your career when people hear and believe unfair stories about you.

When you’re being gossiped about, check your attitude first. Even though it may be tempting, you don’t want to jump into the fray with retaliatory backbiting.

Gossip is oftentimes about power dynamics, and so in order to deflect it, create a positive group of people who get you, and take your side on the issue.

And be sure to manage your self-talk. When people say hurtful things, it reflects back on them, not you. When you put up protective psychological walls around yourself, the hurtful comments won’t get to you.

Dealing with Workplace Gossip

Say What? The Power of Words

Have you ever noticed how one little comment like “You look great!” or “I’ve been hearing things about you…” is enough to make or ruin your day?

Words are powerful. Gossip has an impact on an employee’s psychological well being, the company culture, and team morale.

Although gossip always should be kept in check, some of it can be helpful.

A sure sign of a solid professional is someone who rises above the fray of workplace pettiness.

If you make a practice of stopping the spread of juicy stories, and of not getting embroiled in office drama, then your professional future looks bright.

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