Loose Lips Sink (Work Relation)ships: Handling Gossip in the Workplace

Humans are by their very nature, social creatures. It’s one of the foundational reasons why we’ve thrived as a species. Through forming relationships and working together, we’ve accomplished great things. Unfortunately, this article is going to focus on a regrettable by-product of our innate social drive: workplace gossip.

Over a lifetime, the average person spends approximately 90,000 hours at work. Put another way: one-third of your adult life will be spent in a work environment. No matter which way you cut it, a significant portion of your time will be spent in the workplace, surrounded by other people doing the same. In spending so much time with our colleagues, we become interested in their lives and we develop social bonds that can exceed a purely productivity-focused relationship. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either – a recent meta-analysis shows that friends work together better than a group of acquaintances.

But as alluded to above, gossip is ultimately the by-product of these social connections – you might call it a fact of life. In fact, 90% of conversations qualify as gossip and nearly 15% of all work email can be categorized as gossip too. Another stat: on average, we gossip for about 52 minutes each day. As Alicia Bassuk and Claire Lew qualify it in Harvard Business Review, gossip is “casual and unconstrained conversation, about absent third parties, regarding information or events that cannot be confirmed as being true”.

When Gossip Gets Toxic

When do we need to start worrying about gossip in the workplace? The answer: when it’s “essentially, a form of attack”. Gossip that maligns individuals, can hurt their careers, personal relationships and mental health. In fact, it can even lead to physical symptoms, like panic attacks, self-harm and more. Think of it this way in relation to the HBR definition provided above: if it meets all those criteria and it is negatively focused on an individual or group of individuals, your gossip is toxic and has no place in your workplace. Ultimately, toxic gossip is a form of bullying or verbal harassment and in some jurisdictions, could violate labour rules. Some other negative consequences of workplace gossip:

  • Erosion of trust and morale.
  • Lost productivity and wasted time.
  • Increased anxiety among employees as rumors circulate without clear information as to what is and isn’t fact.
  • Divisiveness among employees as people take sides.
  • Hurt feelings and reputations.
  • Attrition due to good employees leaving the company because of an unhealthy work environment.

If you must deal with or encounter gossip in the workplace, here are some tips to help fix it:

  1. The Buck Stops Here: One of the easiest ways to stop yourself from becoming a part of the toxic gossip cycle is to refuse to be part of it. As Joseph Grenny notes, gossipers are rewarded when others listen to them – it validates what they’re doing. If someone is sharing something toxic that puts another colleague in the crosshairs, tell them that you’re not taking part in this conversation or just walk away. If you can’t avoid the contagion, refuse to spread it further – you’ll be able to eliminate yourself from the cycle and ultimately, limit its spread.
  2. Take a Sad Song and Make it Better: Toxic gossip can negatively alter perceptions of certain colleagues. The good news is, it could also serve to positively address them as well. If you’re treated with a negative take, you can rebut it and respond with a positive perspective on the target – think of it as your own “positive gossip”, which can even have “self-improvement value” for gossip participants, so a win-win, all-around!
  • Report it: This is something that most of us are reluctant to do – nobody likes being a “snitch”, except when it could help us. But the fact of the matter is, in a hierarchal organization like a workplace, sometimes our powers are limited – particularly if the gossiper is our senior. If you’re worried about becoming a target because you’re trying to help someone else out, don’t worry chances are, workplace gossip is against official workplace policy. Generally, your best bet is your Human Resources department, who in addition to having dealt with situations like this before, have a vested interest in maintaining a healthy workplace environment that operates smoothly,  productively and without risk of workplace harassment claims.

Gossip is human nature. Toxic gossip doesn’t have to be – there are many options to address it in the workplace and to shut it down. And if you feel like you have nowhere to turn, check out your company’s therapeutic and mental health resources to receive tailored advice for your situation – there’s always an answer.

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