How to handle negative office gossip

How to Handle Negative Office Gossip

I recently published a blog post titled “Why Gossiping Does Not Belong in the Workplace” which turned out to be quite a popular post receiving many “shares” on social media and comments. It seems that gossip in the workplace is a topic that resonates with many people.

On the one hand, some type of gossip has been found to have positive social effects. In a recent study published in the journal, Psychological Science, Stanford professors found that gossip and ostracism can encourage cooperation in groups and help to weed out those members of the group who free ride on everyone else’s contribution. This type of gossip is described as “reputational information sharing” in the study. It seems to act as a forum for team members to fairly evaluate the performance of others; much like an informal quarterly employee evaluation that I’m sure you’ve been exposed to at one time or another.

There is another type of gossip that can occur in an office environment: negative or malicious gossip. And it’s this type of gossip I want to talk about in this post.

Negative or malicious gossip bears the intent to harm or damage another person’s personal or professional reputation and often takes the form of biased negative judgments, the childish spreading of rumours or lies, and can amount in extreme cases to slander or libel (if diffused via email). For example, discussing somebody else’s personal life in a negative tone while you’re making coffee in the office kitchen is not going to make that target person feel welcome or liked in the office. Commenting about another team member’s misfortune in life (or fortune if said in a negative way) while riding the elevator is probably going to make that target person feel uncomfortable or potentially embarrassed.

How do you handle malicious gossip? What if you’re pulled into a negative gossip conversation and you want to get out? Here’s some ways you can handle the situation with tact and poise.

    1. Ask the Gossiper Where He/She Heard that Information

    If somebody says to you “Did you hear [Stephanie broke up with her boyfriend]”, the natural response they’re waiting for is “No, what happened?” so they can continue on with their story. Instead of allowing the gossip to continue, jolt the gossiper out of the natural gossip flow and respond with a simple “Where did you hear that from”. This response will let the other person know you’re not concerned with the information they want to tell you, you’re more interested with its source and credibility.

    2. Let the Gossiper Know You’re Not Comfortable Talking About That Topic

    By simply saying “I don’t feel comfortable talking about [Stephanie] like that”, you really solidify your personal stance toward gossip and let the other person know you don’t feel comfortable talking about others when they’re not around.

    3. Gently but Firmly Let the Other Person Know Their Comments Are Inappropriate

    If you’re continually being pulled into a negative gossip conversation, you might find a more direct approach is necessary. In response to “Did you hear [Stephanie broke up with her boyfriend]”, you can simply respond with “I don’t think it’s polite or appropriate to talk about our coworker’s personal life”.

    4. Tell the Gossiper You’ll Confirm the Facts With the Targeted Person

    This lets the gossiper know that the information they’re spreading can and will get back to the targeted person. If you respond to gossip with “I’ll ask [targeted person] about that”, you’ll most likely alarm the gossiper and coerce them to stop gossiping and potentially retract what they just said.

    It’s also the responsibility of management to prevent and deter negative and harmful office gossip. Management can:

    1. Raise the issue of negative office gossip in employee meetings.
    2. Provide a written guide or manual to employees that outlines appropriate and inappropriate office gossip, and the effects of negative office gossip.
    3. Hold a seminar for employees that addresses gossiping in the office.
    4. Hold regular lunches or group events to encourage a positive work environment.
    5. Implement a No Office Gossip Policy. This will discourage people from gossiping and make those who are exposed to gossip more comfortable to say they don’t want to be part of it.

    As an employee or a manager, do you have another way to handle negative office gossip?

    Use your social media power and click to share this tweet using the hashtag #NoOfficeGossip: “Here are 5 reasons for #NoOfficeGossip from @execimpressions http://bit.ly/1hRUZkA .

    [Header image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

About Kara

Kara Ronin is the founder of Executive Impressions. She is an executive coach who specialises in leadership presence, social skills and business etiquette. She is also the creator of Bestselling Udemy course, Business Etiquette 101. Kara’s advice and unique perspectives have been featured in Time Inc., Business Insider, Ignites Europe (a Financial Times Service), The Muse, The Local France, The West Australian, and more. Kara works regularly with lawyers, investment bankers, and finance professionals to help them build presence, authority and influence in business. Get Kara's insights delivered straight to your inbox