3 ways to move forward when you get caught gossiping about a colleague

Getting caught talking badly about a coworker in a conference room, in the hallway, or outside your office can make for a pretty sticky situation.

Here’s how to move forward when you’ve badmouthed someone at work and they find out about it.

Explain to them that you’ll never be in this situation again

Former U.S. News & World Report staff writer and editor Laura McMullen (now at NerdWallet) writes in U.S. News & World Report about what to do when you’re on your manager’s bad side for doing something like badmouthing company leadership, among other examples. The piece features commentary from leadership and workplace communication expert Skip Weisman.

” ‘It will not happen again – those are probably five of the most powerful words an employee can say to the boss,’ Weisman says, because the employee is taking ‘real responsibility’ for his or her actions. Of course, he adds, it’s not enough to just say this. You must live up to your promise by not repeating the mistake.”

Don’t react so quickly that you don’t seem genuine

Alex Wilson writes in Fairygodboss that when a coworker hears you badmouthing them at work, you actually shouldn’t “apologize immediately.”

“While this sounds counterintuitive, immediately apologizing to your coworker can worsen the effect of getting caught gossiping. Not only would that apology sound disingenuous, it would sound like you’re only sorry that you got caught —not that you’re sorry for gossiping in the first place. Instead, as soon as somebody sees you gossiping, stop talking. Don’t finish the sentence, don’t make a joke, don’t try to pretend like you were talking about something else — just stop.

“If the person you’re speaking with tries to continue, convince them to stop as well. That doesn’t mean you should whisper ‘shut up!’ or cover your colleague’s mouth with your hand. Gently say ‘let’s have this discussion another time’ and quickly segue to another topic.”

Tell them how you’ll handle it better in the future

Jodi Glickman, a speaker, author and the founder of Great on the Job, writes in the Harvard Business Review that when moving on “from a personal WikiLeaks,” you should “commit to handling grievances differently next time.”

“Once you’ve apologized, groveled and confronted the real issue at hand — you need to work to regain your friend or colleague’s trust. Commit to handling conflict more productively going forward and make a pledge to air grievances up front. Promise to speak directly to your friend or colleague about problems instead of complaining to third parties.”

Glickman provides this sample script in the publication: “I was wrong to talk to Carolyn and Steve instead of just confronting you and I do apologize. I promise to never do that again — next time I have an issue; I’ll come to you directly. I’ve certainly learned my lesson.”