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Adapted from Fiore Group Training Inc. – Phil Eastwood

Workplace gossip often hits the top ten list for ‘disrespectful work behaviours”.

The problem is that gossip can seem so harmless. That little chitchat at the water cooler about so and so. The debate about someone’s relationship with someone else. Is it chitchat or is it gossip? How can you tell the difference? There is a very big difference, and it’s important to make the distinction because gossip that runs amok can be dangerous and destructive in the workplace.

Workplace Gossip or idle Chitchat?

So how does one tell the difference between idle chatter or workplace gossip? While idle chitchat and other light conversation can be value-neutral, gossip is often negative, inflammatory, and embarrassing to the person being spoken of.

Here is a test; think of a recent conversation and consider the impact of what was said:

  • Did it cast negative aspersions?
  • Did it create rifts?
  • Did it exult in the misfortune of others?
  • Did it have a negative emotional charge?
  • Did it serve to perpetuate conflict or negativity?
  • Was it hurtful or damaging?
  • Is it something you would say in front of the person being discussed?

Technically, any sharing of trivial or unsubstantiated information can be considered gossip. But you have to think of the sentiment behind it. For example, if it is rumoured that a co-worker is being promoted, and you discuss it with a co-worker, is that workplace gossip? If the discussion is hurtful or damaging or negative, then yes. But if it’s value-neutral, then it is not. If the story is told with negativity and without goodwill, then it’s gossip.

Gossip Hurts

Workplace gossip can have many adverse side effects on an organization. It can increase conflict and decrease morale. It can also result in strained relationships.

Consider this: gossip breaks down the trust level in a group, resulting in employees’ second-guessing each other and ultimately running to the supervisor to clarify the directions or instructions, or to settle any differences that arise. Gossip is the death of teamwork, creating rifts in the group, leading to cliques, and employees refusing to work with certain people.

Additionally, workplace gossip can be the birth of bullying and harassment. When cliques form, nasty behaviour often comes with it and people can feel excluded.

But luckily, there are ways to stop gossip in its tracks to avoid such a toxic environment.

Here’s how to get off the gossip train:

  • Be busy. Gossip mongers want attention. If you’re preoccupied with your work, you can’t be available to listen to their latest story.
  • Don’t participate. Walk away from the story. Don’t give visual clues that you are interested in listening. If someone passes a juicy story on to you, don’t pass it any further. Take personal responsibility to act with integrity.
  • Turn it around by saying something positive. It isn’t nearly as fun to spread negative news if it’s spoiled by a complimentary phrase about the person being attacked.
  • Avoid the gossiper. If you notice one person who consistently makes trouble, take the necessary actions to have as little interaction with that person as possible.
  • Choose your friends wisely at work. You spend a good deal of time at work so it’s natural for friendships to develop. Share information sparingly until you are sure that you have built up a level of trust. Also, close association with gossipers will give the perception that you are a gossiper as well.
  • Be direct. If you confront the gossiper and confidently tell him or her that such behaviour is making it uncomfortable for you and other coworkers, it’s likely to stop.
  • Don’t be afraid to go to a superior. Gossiping wastes a lot of company time and hurts morale. A company interested in a healthy work environment will value the opportunity to correct this type of situation and avoid possible bullying and harassment in the future.