Photo: Kristina Flour
Office gossip is an inevitable temptation in every workplace. A 2007 report found that nearly two-thirds of employees gossip about their companies. In some cases, it’s a harmless way to spice up a day with anecdotes. But you know it can get hurtful if you’ve ever been the target: when you start entering rooms and everyone stops talking, or when you pull back from friendly interactions with someone because of some gossip you heard about them.
Negative gossip like that can irreparably break down team dynamics and create far-reaching consequences for companies who make decisions based on rumors or in-crowd dynamics.
Beyond wounding people’s feelings, gossip hurts businesses. If you’re a manager or executive who starts to believe gossip, you’re making decisions based on—incomplete at best, or at worse, wildly false—information.
Why we gossip even though it hurts our teams
The first step to conquering it is understanding why we do it. A Harvard Business Review article on the subject said that office gossip boils down to a lack of trust and efficacy. Technology can exacerbate these symptoms of mistrust and make it easier for us to gossip through instant messaging platforms. You can see why people depend on them: For those of us who don’t trust formal channels of information, our private Slack messages to one another may feel like a more valued source of information.
And according to HBR, engaging in gossip can offer a tempting emotional release when you’re frustrated about a social hierarchy and afraid to address it directly: “Can you believe what the boss said?” If you’re in a workplace that doesn’t let you speak freely, office gossip can be a satisfying—although not always healthy way— to address interpersonal conflicts: “I overheard your disagreement and I totally agree…”
But just because these gossipy behaviors are understandable, it doesn’t mean that they’re acceptable. While they may make us feel better in the short-term, they hurt our relationships with each other and our companies over time.
How to stop negative gossip
Some rumors are harmless to your career and the best course of action is to not waste energy and just let those blow over. People will find something else to gossip about soon enough.
But if you find yourself in a situation where people are negatively gossiping about your reputation or that of a colleague, you can be the bystander who steps in and defuses the situation.
The goal is to pass that good karma forward: you want to model the behavior you’d want to see in others if you were the person being gossiped about.
Here are some useful techniques to stop gossip and staying likable.
1. Dismiss the gossip and change the subject
Gossips usually want an appreciative audience; they love having the social currency of sharing dirt about others. A quick way to shut them down is to devalue that currency. You can stop gossip directly by changing the subject with a brisk, “maybe she was having a bad day. Anyways, a funnier thing I learned…”
2. Question the gossip
Most gossip is not exactly rigorously fact-checked. It often consists of half-truths or things so apparently scandalous that no one actually checks them out with the person being gossiped about. Even if it’s true, it’s usually lacking context. Additionally, sometimes the gossip is started — and enforced — by someone with an axe to grind against an office frenemy. All of these techniques serve the gossiper’s goal to establish him or herself as the moral arbiter of office behavior — and to distract from his own behavior by spotlighting someone else’s.
But it can be uncomfortable to hear, or to be complicit in wrecking someone else’s reputation. So you can stop it indirectly by emphasizing the positive aspects about that person, as Victor Lipman, the author of “The Type B Manager” advises.
This can mean reminding your colleagues that they could be overreacting and telling them, “That doesn’t sound like the Jerry I know. He was great in the conference last month.” It’s a subtle but effective way to put gossip in wider perspective, providing the context that’s frequently lost.
3. If you’re the target, remember that it may not actually about you
Gossip is rarely about the target. Instead, it’s usually about the gossiper, and that person’s need for attention.
Laura Huxley named her 1960s self-help best-seller for an anecdote she heard about how people comforted each other in air-raid shelters: “You are not the target.” It’s a helpful thought when you’re under siege or just feeling like you are. What that means is that even in an office context, gossip comes from many different sources and it’s often, paradoxically not personal. For instance, companies that are near mass layoffs are usually plagued by gossip and toxic cultural practices. Gossipers, in that case, tend to be people who feel that their personal position is precarious and want to blame someone else for it, or make someone else’s position as precarious as their own.
Or, when the company is not in crisis, the gossiper could be a person who feels their career is not going well, and in their personal state of pain, they want to believe someone else is to blame for their troubles, or see someone else as worse off than them. They appoint themselves the “hall monitor” — sending direct messages to coworkers or saying mean things behind people’s backs — as a position of false power, to make up for their feeling of powerlessness.
Gossipers can also be people who feel they’re not well-liked, and so their response is to complain and gossip about others in the hopes of creating an alliance that will protect them. People are more bonded by negative views, after all, than they are by positive ones.
In any of these cases, it’s important to put even the most toxic gossip in context and remember that it’s about someone else’s weakness and insecurity. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause harm; it does. It’s just that the person is thinking about themselves more than they’re thinking about you.
3. How to address gossip if you’re the subject of it
When you’re clear about the source of why people are gossiping, you can address it directly with wry humor, as executive coach Peggy Klaus did. When she was promoted at her company, she heard gossip from subordinates that she didn’t have enough technical skills for the job.
She got over her initial reaction of wanting to be defensive and addressed each of her teams in conversational tones about the issue. “I’ve heard a lot of other things about me…but since there are men in the room it wouldn’t be polite to repeat them,” Klaus told them, drawing laughs.
Then she got serious: “I’m not going anywhere. If you have any questions about that, come see me.”
Also keep in mind that the gossiper may just be a person who’s negative about everything, and you got caught in the crossfire. The Harvard Business Review has good ideas on how to address that.
4. Take gossip out of the shadows
Overall, the long-term way to stop gossip is to promote an office of open communication where people can address conflicts without gossiping about them. This usually takes cooperation from managers; if leaders are resistant to ideas or react badly to new information, employees will follow suit and suppress information, creating backchannels of unregulated information that can become toxic.
That means getting to the bottom of gossip and squashing rumors before they blow up. If you’re a manager with an employee who is a repeat gossip offender, you’ll need to confront that employee directly.
Inc magazine suggests holding a one-on-one with your repeat offender and telling them that if they hear any rumors, they should come to you first. That way it builds trust that you should be the primary source of information-sharing.
The truth is that gossipers are usually looking for easy targets, and it’s important to make sure you don’t look like one. How to do that: have known defenders. If you don’t know exactly who is gossiping about you and for what reasons, you may need to recruit colleagues who would know to advocate on your behalf. Your advocates can spread truth and set the record straight with others. This is another reason why it’s always important to build allies in the workplace at every level.