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How to Deal With the Gossipmonger at Your Workplace

What can you do about office gossip if you are the victim?

Dreamstime, Royalty Free Stock Photo
Source: Dreamstime, Royalty Free Stock Photo

When you find out that your co-worker told half of the staff members at the office that you and your wife are having marital problems, it can feel like taking a kick in the stomach while not being allowed to whisper “ouch!” Office gossip is hard to bear for those who are targets. But gossip at the workplace is likely here to stay. What can you do about it if you are the victim?

Start by looking at your own behavior. Are you yourself an office gossip or an office bully? If so, then your new status as a victim may just be the sweet revenge of your co-workers.

According to psychologist Matthew Feinberg and co-workers, gossip may serve a regulatory purpose. The researchers asked 216 participants, divided into groups, to play a game and make financial choices that would benefit their group as a whole. The game allowed group members to benefit egocentrically by free-riding off of other group members’ financial choices. The researchers then divided the participants into new groups but allowed them to gossip about their prior group members. Future group members then received that gossip and could choose to ostracize free-riding subjects before making their next contributions.

The research team found that the gossip about group members benefitted the groups as a whole. By excluding the selfish group members, other less selfish participants could cooperate with others who were of the same mindset, and the group would thrive in a way it wouldn’t have without the gossip. Other recent research published in the December 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has since then demonstrated that gossip teaches lazy or selfish individuals to think about their own behavior and grow to become less focused on their own good and work toward the common good of the group.

Gossip can thus have a beneficial function in the workplace. It can teach narcissistic or lazy people to cooperate, and even if these individuals never learn, it can allow others to align with those who are willing to add to the work environment in positive ways and thereby contribute to the overall growth of the workplace.

These findings, however, presuppose that gossip is directed at those who deserve it. Often it is not. Gossip is a way of bullying others into submission or gaining power at the expense of others. What can you do if the gossip your colleague spreads about you is entirely ungrounded or isn’t based on your failure to collaborate or be pleasant as a colleague?

What to do if your colleague spreads gossips about you as a result of envy or an unhealthy desire to get promoted ahead of you?

Talking to your boss or confronting the bully may not work. Confronting the bully could lead to vindictive behavior. Bullies often consciously or unconsciously single out the people who can be bullied into submission by means of gossip. If you are already a victim of gossip, chances are that you will continue to be one once your colleague adds fuel to the flames.

Talking to your boss could help in some circumstances but it depends on your boss. If your boss is already inclined to side with the office gossip, talking to her could have the same unfortunate outcome. If the gossip is seriously hurting your reputation or ability to function in the job, approaching the right instances in Human Resources (HR) may be a better approach. But filing a complaint with HR can have serious consequences and could even lead to a defamation lawsuit in the worst of possible scenarios, a lawsuit you may not win.

Your best chance of repairing your reputation and restoring a pleasant work environment may be to use reverse psychology. Depending on the nature of the gossip and the truthfulness of it, you may simply start talking openly about it as if it does not concern you, thereby turning the gossip into non-gossip. Let’s suppose you really are having marital problems that have been claimed by the office gossipmonger to affect your abilities to perform to your fullest at work. Simply bringing out in the open that you did have marital problems but adding that you and your spouse have now worked them out, whether this is true or not, may suffice to silence the bully. Granted, if you still have marital problems that deeply affect you, you will need to either leave those personal problems at home or take a sick leave.

Coming out of the closet doesn’t work in all circumstances, however. Office gossip, even if true, may not be something you want to admit to. What’s worse is that most office gossip is false, and you certainly should not admit to things that never happened or crimes you never committed.

In some such cases, you can nip the gossip in the bud by behaving exemplary at work, never sharing any personal details with anyone. You can furthermore broadcast your exemplary performance in subtle ways. Suppose an office bully has convinced several office workers that you are struggling with a substance-abuse problem, which you are not. People who have a substance abuse problem eventually underperform at work, and they certainly don’t behave exemplary in the long run. To show everyone just how preposterous this rumor is, show up at work a teeny bit earlier for a while and make sure that everyone knows about it, not by telling them, but by greeting them when they get their lazy behinds out of bed and drag themselves to work. Offer to take on tasks that everyone dreads and complete them on time and in a masterly fashion.

But perhaps no exemplary job performance will serve to falsify the gossip that is going around. Perhaps the office bully is making others despise you for reasons that have nothing to do with your work performance, your personality, your intelligence, or your willingness to be cooperative. The gossip may concern the weight you gained recently or a long time ago, your race or religion, your choice to remain childfree or single, your sexual orientation, or your gender identity. In such cases, your best shot may be to approach HR, but before doing that, you should gather compelling evidence. Find out whether recording conversations is allowed in your state without the second party’s consent. If it is allowed, record revealing conversations, save emails and letters, find allies who can testify. You will need it to win a case that may turn out to be a harassment case, which—with the right evidence—you have a good chance of winning.

If you are dealing with one of those astute gossipmongers that never leave evidence behind, like the most clever of criminals, approaching HR should probably not be the next step on your agenda. You may consider changing jobs. Some companies will have options that allow you to work in the same town or building without having to be around the same colleagues.

But what if none of this works? If you find yourself feeling completely and utterly helpless and the gossipping continues to the point where you can’t just ignore it and perform optimally at your job, you may need to consider changing certain aspects of your personality. Bullies, like serial killers, often choose their victims. They don’t always choose them consciously. But they can almost smell who will be the kind of person who can get bullied. The fact is that some people, perhaps owing to their kind and giving personality, nearly always end up in that situation. You can change the relevant aspects of your personality by looking at what your colleagues do, both the bullies, the bully supporters and those who simply look the other way. You can imitate their behavior. Become one of them. But that isn’t optimal. Luckily, there are better ways to deal with this situation.

Being a victim in gossip/bully situations has a lot to do with how you respond to small “incidents.” If something minor happens to you, don’t sit back and hope it will go away. Confront the attacker. But not in a hostile manner.

Let’s suppose someone at lunch loudly declares (as a potential gossip-starter) “I can’t believe you are chewing with your mouth full.” What to do? You can stop chewing with your mouth full—today anyway, or your can ignore the oppressor, or act passively-aggressively toward him or her by wearing your hurt feelings on your sleeve, or you can throw a temper tantrum and yell and scream. All of that is going to backfire. Needless to say.

A better approach is to swallow your food, then turn to your bully and say in a quiet and calmly and collected tone of voice:

“Yes, that is an annoying habit I have. But instead of just blurting out your dissatisfaction with my annoying habit in front of everyone, a better approach would have been to have talked to me privately after lunch.”

Then stop and say no more. If the oppressor says anything other than “I am sorry,” in which case you reply “apology accepted,” just calmly state:

“As I said, I would prefer to talk about this privately. Thank you.”

There are two ways in which this approach is effective: (1) you call out the bully as soon as you can in front of others (preferably), and (2) unlike the bully, you remain cool, calm, and collected, hopefully making others realize who the pathetic person here really is.

But what about the secret gossiper, the one who never makes comments in large assemblies but spreads his mean-spirited gossip behind closed doors? Start by confiding in those of your colleagues who seem least hostile, those who may openly or secretly be on your side. Get them on your side, if they are only half way there. Explain (calmly—always calmly) why this is a tremendous problem. Once you get a group of people on your side, strategize. Figure out if confronting the bully as a group is the best way to go, or whether a more formal complaint is in order.