You show up on Monday morning and congregate around the coffee maker to share weekend stories. Before you know it, the conversation turns to what feels like a harmless little chitchat about another coworker’s private life.
The more details you share, the more uncomfortable some of your colleagues–the ones informed of HR policies in the employee handbook–become. Eye contact is averted by one, and another abruptly bails the scene with a “gotta go.”
When Chitchat Becomes Gossip
Here’s where it gets tricky and how you can tell the difference. When light conversation and idle chitchat elevates to negative, inflammatory, and embarrassing to the person being spoken of, you’ve ventured into gossip terrain, which, in HR speak, is a form of attack and workplace violence!
If you’re still not sure, take these illustrations for a test run:
Does the chitchat rejoice in the misfortune of others? Yep, gossip.
Does it have a negative emotional charge or seem to perpetuate conflict or negativity? Gossip again.
Does it hurt or damage the one being spoken of? Would you say it in front of this person’s face?
Is it an unsubstantiated rumor about another employee’s work situation (a promotion or demotion)? Uh-huh, gossip.
What Gossip Does to the Workplace
You know who they are–most likely disgruntled workers who didn’t get something their way, disagreed with a change of direction, and are now holding grudges, or didn’t get that promotion they felt entitled to.
They are quick to gossip and even quicker to hammer leadership for “dumb decisions.” Keep a close eye on them. They spread their tumor by enlisting others into their negative spin campaign.
Some negative consequences of workplace gossip include:
- Gradual decline of trust and morale.
- Work productivity goes down because people are emotionally caught up in the drama like teenage kids. Watch for hush-hush chatter around cubicles of disgruntled employees where those infected by gossip will stop by to “get the latest,” thus wasting precious company time.
- Anxiety and tension are high as rumors circulate and people walk on eggshells without knowing what is and isn’t fact.
- Divisiveness as people take sides.
- Unexpected turnover and loss of good talent who left due to the toxic work environment.
8 Steps to Limiting Gossip
- Set an example. Be a good role model for others to follow and don’t engage in the gossip. Be assertive, walk away, or change the subject when the gossip starts. The message you’re communicating to others is that the behavior won’t be tolerated.
- Let your boss know. Have the courage to inform your immediate boss if the gossip is growing and gaining followers. Management that supports a healthy work environment should now address the issue in a way that reinforces and promotes a positive culture.
- Address the perpetrators. This will take some courage, but stand up to the lead perpetrators and address them one-on-one in a neutral and more private room or office so others can’t overhear. The point is not a pummel session, but to tactfully demonstrate with specific examples how your colleague’s behavior is affecting and disrupting work.
- If you’re a manager, meet with your team. Bring up the topic of gossip in a staff meeting to educate your team on its negative consequences.
- Encourage positive gossip. The flipside of negative gossip is to create a culture where people share positive stories about work, customers, and culture. Think of examples where peers and bosses can communicate to each other what they feel proud about at work. An example would be an employee going above-and-beyond in serving a customer, then management sharing the story company-wide and through social media to increase brand value. Start morning huddles with positive gossip and reinforce the cultural values and key behaviors you want through story-telling.
- Ignore the gossiper. Gossipmongers thrive on attention and will prey on open and inviting ears. Your course of action is to be busy and preoccupied with your work (as you should be), so you’re not available to listen. When the gossiper hands off the juicy gossip baton to you (because they want to spread it by enlisting other gossipers), don’t take it.
- Turn it back on the gossiper with a positive thing to say. Deflect the negative gossip with the exact opposite, by saying something refreshingly positive that you perceive to be true and fair–the other side of the coin. A complimentary remark about the person being attacked will stop the gossiper on his tracks. You may not see him visit you again.
- Keep your private life private. Unless you have absolute certainty that you can trust a coworker, the rule of thumb is plain and simple: Don’t trust personal information with anyone at work that will be fodder for gossip. The dead giveaway that you’re dealing with serial gossipers is this: If you find them gossiping about others, you can bet that they will be gossiping about you as well. Don’t give them ammunition to do so.