It’s fun to talk about other people. Part of the human condition is our desire to discuss the foibles, follies, and downfalls of the people around us or comment with glee when our heroes, celebrities, or elected leaders screw up. (Google Gary Hart, for a start.) We take visible joy when a smarty-pants public figure gets caught doing the very thing he or she railed against so strongly. News stations and reporters love public political scandals because they fill pages or air time and offer them a chance to be righteously superior without actually saying, “We told you he was a creep or she was a liar.”
The concept of gossip as a human communication modality today exists in new forms that go far beyond two little old ladies leaning out their windows to tell each other about the butcher’s secret affair with the miller’s illegitimate daughter, circa 1645 AD. Shakespeare said in The Tempest (Act 2, Scene 2), “His forward voice now is to speak well of his friend. His backward voice is to utter foul speeches and to detract.”
Social media and the related photographs or videos of everything, all the time, makes gossip much more convenient. No need to ride on horseback across the countryside to spread the news of the church official and the missing money or the school teacher with her 15 year-old boyfriend. Hit Send and it’s on its way to a welcoming recipient who will surely pass it along to his or her e-mail list, Facebook friends, Instagram acolytes, or Twitter followers. The gossip virus spreads electronically more than verbally these days. Still, old school methods work just as well. Whether it’s over a farm fence, across a table in a pub, or whispered in the pews at church, people have been talking about each other’s failings for centuries.
While it makes sense people gossip about people they don’t like or more often, don’t even know, it’s odd how we take perverse pleasure in gossiping about our own friends or family to our other friends or other family. No boundaries are sacred anymore, thanks to Facebook and its social media self-reporting spawn. Indeed the German translation for schadenfreude (literally “harm-joy”) is the feeling of pleasure you get when you see ort hear about the misfortunes of others.
The workplace is a good breeding ground for gossip bacteria. All the necessary elements are in the Petri dish: people are under personal and professional stress, sitting together for long hours; relationships or friendships form, grow, or collapse; power struggles ebb and flow; political games reveal loyalties and agendas; backstabbing, fakery, and situational ethics abound; physical chemistry or repulsion exists; and folks have the time and inclination to talk.
Before we throw workplace gossip under the bus as bad for business, a waste of time, and hurtful, we have to turn the coin over and agree that it’s fun, it helps pass boring minutes or hours in the office, and it’s often true; she is sleeping with him or he didn’t get that big promotion because he drinks rum for lunch. Even the most holier-than-thou types at work who rail against gossip and demand that it stop (often a supervisor frustrated with a lack of productivity) will have to admit they have gossiped at work about their bosses, peers, or subordinates. This may be done under the guise of “sharing” information with others for the good of the team, but usually it’s because there was a covert or overt motive to bash someone.
An example of the poisonous power of gossip comes to mind. I was called to consult at an office run by a male manager who had an all-female staff. He was harried, distracted, and overworked and didn’t pay a lot of attention to the personalities in is department, only their work outputs. He called me to say that he discovered a massive wave of the silent treatment had descended over his team, with one group of ladies not speaking to the other, at all, ever. The root of this discontent began when the cute, young, slender, attractive women began referring to the not-so cute, older, heavier, and more matronly women in the office as Shreks 1 through 5. Their coded emails and whispered conversations in passing sounded like this: “Could you give this to Shrek 3? I have a meeting later with Shrek 2. Tell Shrek 4 I’ll talk to her after lunch” and so forth. This was all well and fun for them until the Shreks found out how they were being described and that’s when the retaliations began.
Suffice to say it took a lot of individual interviews, some pointed coaching meetings, a tear-filled team-building session, and the passage of time to heal these wounds. I’m still not convinced one of the wounded Shreks might not still poison the coffee of one of the non-Shrek meanies.
The reasons to not to gossip at work are plentiful: It’s bad for business. It wastes time. It’s almost always hurtful. It helps create cliques, divisions, and the silent treatment. It can ruin friendships, relationships, and marriages. It hurts your personal and professional reputation if you are labeled a gossip. It can create huge issues about trust between people and teams. It hurts the way people and departments communicate with each other, and even their clients or customers. It makes people feel attacked, bullied, and talked about. It has huge consequences, beyond just people feeling miserable or quitting.
Consider this last point. Whereas being gossiped about at work may frustrate an adult employee into quitting, think about the number of stories we’ve heard about young kids, teenagers, or young adults who have killed themselves as the result of hateful gossip that bloomed large through social media. Words can not only wound; they can kill.
Consider how stupid it sounds when a male supervisor tells me, “I won’t have a meeting with one of my female employees unless my office door is wide open or there is another person in the room as a witness.” I ask, “You can’t have a closed-door meeting in your office, to talk about confidential or proprietary issues?” “Nope,” he says. “I don’t want people to start rumors about what I’m doing with her with the door shut.”
I have worked on threat assessment cases where the furious husband or boyfriend of a female employee or the enraged wife or girlfriend of a male employee has shown up at the facility, barged into the work area, and confronted that person they (falsely) believed was sleeping with their mate. This kind of behavior can make people very nervous, as home issues now become work issues. (Reminds me of an old Rodney Dangerfield joke: “My wife’s jealousy is getting out of control. The other day she looked at my calendar and demanded to know who April was.”)
Since we’ve already categorized office gossip as a virus, stopping it demands the same quarantine behaviors as we would use for computer malware. Although it takes courage with a capital C to say this, successful, positive, supportive people, who want to keep the office environment free from gossip, treat each discussion that starts with, “Hey, did you hear about Dave and Mary Jane in Accounting . . . ?” with “No, and thanks but I’m not interested. I just want to do my work.” Like spam or an offensive photo, joke, or cartoon that comes into your Inbox, you have to hit Delete and send it on its way to the Trash file without comment.
If you’re a supervisor (or want to be one some day), you may have to address gossip with one or more coaching conversations with the offending employees. These pointed discussions should come with specific examples of what you don’t them to say or do when it comes to spreading rumors, false information, or hateful words. They won’t like to hear what you have to say, but it’s necessary to say it. “Gossip is bad for our business. It hurts people’s feelings and it wastes our time and money. You’re being paid to work. You can have conversations with your co-workers. Just stick to our business, your work, and topics that don’t hurt people or their reputations.”
Easy to say and hard to enforce? Maybe. But we’ve all worked in organizations that felt toxic because of gossip and in others where people felt supported, appreciated, and not talked about negatively. Do your best to enforce the No Gossip Rule, but be prepared to be gossiped about yourself. The battle for peace between people in the office continues.
Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, BCC, is internationally-known for his writing, speaking, and training on workplace violence and school violence prevention. He manages a San Diego-based training and consulting firm specializing in high-risk human resources issues, organizational security concerns, and work culture improvement. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration, an MA in Security Management, a BS in Psychology, and a BA in English. He is board certified in HR, security, and employee coaching. His 16 books include: Tough Training Topics; Added Value Negotiating; Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace (written in 1994 as one of the first books on this subject); and Fear and Violence on the Job. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht