It seems so harmless. That little chitchat at the water cooler about so and so. The debate over someone’s relationship with someone else. The speculation about “you-know-who.” Is it chitchat or is it gossip? How can you tell the difference? And who cares? The truth is that there is a very big difference, and it is an important one, because gossip run amok can be dangerous and destructive in the workplace.
Gossip or idle chitchat?
So how does one tell the difference between idle chatter or gossip? While idle chitchat and other light conversation can be value neutral—meaning it casts neither good or bad aspersions on the subject matter, gossip is often negative, inflammatory and embarrassing to the person being spoken of.
Here is a test: Consider the impact of what is being said. Does it cast negative aspersions? Does it create rifts? Does it exult in the misfortune of others? Does it have a negative emotional charge? Does it serve to perpetuate conflict or negativity? Is it hurtful or damaging? Is it something you would say in front of that person?
Technically, any sharing of trivial or unsubstantiated information can be considered gossip. But you have to consider the sentiment. For example, if it were rumored that a coworker is being promoted, and you discuss it with a coworker, is that gossip? If the discussion is hurtful or damaging or negative, then yes, it is gossip. But if it’s value neutral then it’s not. If the story is told with negativity and without good will, then it is gossip.
Example of value neutral gossip: Did you hear that Jane Doe got promoted to Executive VP of Marketing? I look forward to hearing about her ideas for us.”
Example of “bad gossip”: Did you hear that Jane Doe got promoted to Executive VP of Marketing? I hear that she only got that job because she is “friends” with the CEO.
Gossip can hurt
Gossip can have many adverse side effects on an organization. It can increase conflict and decrease morale. It can result in strained relationships. Gossip breaks down the trust level within the group, which
results in employees second-guessing each other and ultimately running to the supervisor to clarify the directions or instructions, or to settle the differences that will arise. Gossip is the death of teamwork as the group breaks up into cliques and employees start refusing to work with others.
Gossip results in the supervisor spending an enormous amount of time trying to figure out who said what to whom. Or, worse yet, the supervisor struggles to explain to the manager that the ongoing conflicts and communication problems within the work group are the reason work doesn’t get done only to hear the manager comment, “Why can’t you manage your team better?” Productivity is lost, as are good employees who do not want to work in that toxic environment.
Breaking the gossip cycle
Let’s say you are not a gossiper. You simply listen to your coworkers so as not be rude. You’ve been taught to be a team player right? But here’s the thing that most people don’t realize—as a listener, you are a co-narrator to the gossip. In other words, the act of active listening actually supports and promotes gossiping. The more you listen, the more you encourage it. If you don’t listen, the gossip has nowhere to go. Think about the last time you told a story to someone who was clearly not interested. The story probably withered on the vine.
Here’s how to get out of the gossip pipeline:
What the employer can do
Gossip is as old as mankind. It is unrealistic to think we could free the workplace of gossip. It’s also conducted through the free will of employees, and regulating that is very difficult without creating a big brother climate. That being said, there are some things that employers can do to minimize negative gossiping and rumormonger:
What if the gossip is about you!
If you are the target of gossip you have two choices. You can confront the source or make a public statement. Thankfully, gossip has a very short life span. Sometimes, the best thing to do is let it run its (hopefully) short course. Creating a stink sometimes causes more drama than just letting it go.