It begins innocently enough—an offhand comment about a co-worker’s cluttered desk or her unlikely obsession with smooth jazz.
But dishing dirt in the office can quickly turn toxic, poisoning even the closest working relationships. Pope Francis has called gossip the disease of cowards, and, indeed, it’s a disease that we’ve all been infected with and deliberately spread at some point in our lives.
|I felt terrible when I realized that they were talking about me just as much as I was talking and complaining about them.|
Gossip can feel like a shortcut to intimacy, but it backfires. By criticizing other people—their flaws, blind spots, personality quirks, and style choices—we unveil our own senses of humor and style to people we’d like to please. But before long, gossip damages our work environments and reputations.
And yes, it’s cowardly. Too often we engage in gossip instead of directly working to resolve problems. While it would be more effective—and brave—to tell our officemate that the chimes and buzzes that erupt from her cell phone all day are distracting, we complain to someone else. And that person exaggerates what he’s heard to someone else who also spreads the story. Before we know it, we’ve left an indelible stain on our colleague’s reputation.
Sociologist Tim Hallett puts it even more strongly; he says that office gossip “can be a form of reputational warfare” that brings everyone in the workplace down.
In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Hallet referred to his findings after conducting a two-year study of office gossip at an elementary school and tracing the negative effects of sarcasm, gossip, and general mean-spiritedness among the school’s faculty and staff.
“It was reminiscent of the old saying that gossip is a three-pronged tongue; it can hurt the speaker and the listener, as well as the target.”
This was true for a woman named Carolyn, an editor and mother of three, who worked in a small publishing company in Chicago for several years when she learned that a co-worker had said that she’d used company money for personal travel. Carolyn only learned about it after almost everyone else in the office had heard the rumor.
“I was hurt and absolutely livid,” she said. “I have lots of theories about why she did this—she had made it clear in the past that she thought she should have my job. I have always thought it had something to do with that.”
Although Carolyn was able to prove the accusation untrue, the situation left her feeling anxious and insecure around her colleagues. Not long after the truth came out, the person who had lied left the company after her position was eliminated. Did her fabrications contribute to this? Carolyn doesn’t know, but the effects of these rumors lingered.
“I had to dig deep to remind myself that the people who knew me trusted me, and that I couldn’t control what they believed about me,” she said. “I do wish that I’d confronted her on it. I still regret not asking her why she would accuse me of a crime.”
Becca, an executive assistant from Elmhurst, Illinois, was also the victim of office gossip—and she also perpetrated it. Several years ago, she worked closely with two other women and whichever two were alone together would “talk smack behind the third person’s back.”
“I felt terrible when I realized that they were talking about me just as much as I was talking and complaining about them,” Becca said. “Today I would handle issues directly and not let that kind of triangulation happen.”
|My work felt eerily similar to junior high with its gossipy shenanigans … I’m firmly convinced one’s coworkers can make or break your job experience.|
Rumor-mongering and gossip can even result in people quitting their jobs. Lynn, a physician’s assistant in Providence, Rhode Island, said that she left her job because she needed to get away from a toxic workplace. Her co-workers speculated nastily about their colleague’s sex lives and made disparaging comments about other people’s physical appearances, among other things. Lynn hung back, often appalled by what they said.
“It felt eerily similar to junior high with its gossipy shenanigans,” Lynn said. “Some of it was highly inappropriate. I’m firmly convinced one’s coworkers can make or break your job experience.”
Ultimately, Lynn quit her job and didn’t look for a new one for a few years.
“You could almost say I had PTSD,” she said. In her new—much happier and emotionally-healthy—workplace, “the PAs all have each other’s backs—we’re not stabbing them!”
While engaging in gossip can make us feel like we belong or that we’re superior to others, the dark truth is that excluding and damaging the reputations of others is fraught with danger. It’s best to shut gossip down when it rears its ugly head. Walking away from a negative or unhealthy conversation, suggesting a change of topic, confronting a statement head-on, and flat-out refusing to dish dirt at the office is a better course of action.
Last names have been omitted in this story to protect privacy.
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