How to bury ugly office gossip

September 30, 2020
How to bury ugly office gossip

You might think that office gossip is just part of the package when you’re managing a workforce. But actually, it can be a deadly disease that can ruin the lives of the people it targets, as well as the teams they belong to.

The internet is full of sad stories from people whose reputations have been ruined by harmful gossip in the workplace. And even though gossip is often completely false, even the rumours that start off with a glimmer of truth can become so warped as they are passed along the chain, that they are unrecognisable and worryingly dangerous by the time they make it to the surface

And the problem with gossip, is that it is very difficult to undo. Once a person’s reputation has been tarnished, it often becomes difficult for them to disassociate themselves with whatever rumours have been passed around. So it goes without saying that gossip is something you do not want flying around the workplace.

Why do people gossip?

There are plenty of reasons why people gossip. But in many cases, it’s quite simply a way to pass the time.

“Gossiping at work is often a form of entertainment” says Pete Sosnowski, VP of People at career website Zety. “It helps people unwind, de-stress, and take a break from the office routine. However, it is difficult to determine how far one can go before crossing the line to harm or discredit workmates.

News travels fast, says Pete, and persistent gossipers can seriously damage the more sensitive and vulnerable individuals, who don’t know how to handle talking behind their back. As such, it is an issue that often falls into the lap of HR to deal with.

“Remember, persistent and hurtful gossiping can be considered bullying” advises Pete. “It’s a serious matter that every manager, or HR person at your company, should learn to handle properly.”

Gossip is dangerous and should not be tolerated

HR specialist Angela Ash, of Upflip, says that gossip can have a very real and damaging impact on the individuals you employ, and consequently, the work they produce

“It makes some people feel like not even coming into work, creating situations where they feel unsure about their performance” she says. “Needless to say, productivity will diminish, and it may be difficult to retain good employees, especially if they see the bad employees constantly spreading rumours with no obvious repercussions.”

According to Angela, gossiping must be stopped as soon as you become aware of the fact that it is happening. She says that your entire team should understand that you have a zero-tolerance policy for this type of behaviour.

Does gossip hurt if nobody finds out?

Some people take the opinion that as long as gossip never breaks out into the open, then it causes no damage. But according to Rex Freiberger, CEO of Gadget Review, gossip doesn’t need to be ‘out’ to be dangerous

“Most people think they’re gossiping in secret” says Rex, “but even if the actual gossip doesn’t come out, the animosity is palpable. It creates a divide in the workplace and makes people speculate about their coworkers in ways that are neither healthy nor productive.”

So should the solution be to eavesdrop on conversations, and cut gossip out at the source? Not necessarily.

The solution is not to surveille – but a heavy hand is sometimes required

“I don’t believe in surveilling private chats” continues Rex. “What I will do, however, is keep an eye out for tension. People aren’t as subtle as they think they are, and if there’s conflict brewing, we get to the heart of it quickly.”

And while Rex doesn’t believe in tapping into private conversations, he certainly advocates addressing the gossip once it comes to light.

“The involved parties are spoken to independently” he advises. “We consider it a form of workplace harassment. They’re verbally warned, and if it happens again they’re written up. The third time is termination.”

People gossip when facing the unknown

Some people are simply gossip-prone, using it as a way to pass the time. But some types of gossip can be fostered by certain office environments or situations. So if you want to reduce the overall level of dangerous gossip within your organisation, then it’s worth understanding the kinds of situations that cultivate this practice. And according to Mr L. Burke Files, President at FEE Inc., general gossip most often flares up as a response to the unknown

“When a company is undergoing stressors, financial, deadlines, mergers & acquisitions, etc., so much is happening so quickly that people seek to create a narrative and a meaning to the narrative, to fit what they think they know” he says. “We are pattern assembling meaning making machines. Any little thing that happens, the question will pop up of ‘what does it mean?’. And unresolved matters in an employee’s head tend to resolve in a negative way – it is just how we are wired.”

Mr Files insists that in order to reduce gossip of this nature, management must communicate regularly and often – it is not enough to simply listen out for gossip, in order to rebut, correct or confirm. Although this is, of course, sometimes necessary.

Does this match your views on burying office gossip, or do you take a different approach?

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