We try to resist, but we’ve all done it: A co-worker says, “Did you hear why Jeremy got transferred out of Janine’s department?” Despite feeling a twinge of guilt, we lean in to hear more.
One reason we feel guilty about listening to gossip is that it often violates trust. When someone gossips about someone else’s personal problems or struggles at work, they’re likely to be passing on information that was shared with them in confidence, or was acquired without the person’s knowledge or permission. A trust violation like this is especially problematic when the gossiper’s main motivation is self-serving—for example, when the gossiper covets someone’s job or craves the status that comes from being “in the know.”
The bottom line: When we listen to gossipers, there’s a good chance we’re supporting their decision to break confidentiality or manipulate reputations. Every time we do this, we chip away at organizational trust. That creates a vicious cycle because, as people’s trust in an organization or a manager decreases, gossip becomes more likely. It’s no wonder people rank gossip as one of the worst workplace offenses.
So why is gossip so hard to resist?
The Benefits of Gossip
Gossip can be enticing because—let’s face it—knowing private information about others at work can potentially give us power over them, or even just a satisfying feeling of superiority or a bit of entertainment. However, as sociologists Jörg Bergmann and Gary Fine explain, those who engage in gossip—especially if they are sharing truthful information with one another—can also have laudable and defensible motivations:
- Truthful Gossip Can Reinforce Organizational Norms. Suppose Jane tells her friends at lunch that Jim was supposed to be working from home today, but he just posted a picture of himself at the beach. Jane’s motivation may not be to hurt Jim, but to demonstrate her commitment to the company’s remote working policies, and to get reinforcement from her friends that they agree Jim’s behavior is unacceptable. This kind of discussion can benefit the organization as a whole. Research has shown that, when information about bad behavior is communicated effectively throughout a social network, people are less likely to misbehave because they know they’re more likely to face social consequences.
- Truthful Gossip Can Send Important Warnings. Our success in an organization can be enhanced if we know that Suzanne gives overly harsh performance reviews, or that Michael doesn’t respect others’ space in an open-plan office. Gossip can not only guide others away from run-of-the-mill organizational troublemakers, but also warn them about someone who behaves unethically or unlawfully. As the #MeToo movement has illustrated, this is especially true for those with less organizational power, who often rightly fear the consequences of formally reporting such behavior. Research has also shown that, by protecting others, those who share workplace warnings feel better about themselves.
- Truthful Gossip Can Provide Career Guidance. Although we often assume that gossip focuses on negative information, informal communication at work can also focus on people’s accomplishments and positive personal qualities. If we hear through the grapevine that Sally is a terrific team leader or that Sam is a great mentor, that can help us make better decisions about where in an organization we want to work, and with whom.
- Truthful Gossip Can Build Trust and Cohesion. Gossip can strengthen relationships because we want to be close to those who share our norms and who give us helpful advice. Trusting relationships at work tend to enhance personal and organizational success. But, be cautious about this kind of gossip. Research has shown that too much cohesion within a group of people at work can create an echo chamber, where both positive and negative gossip is unhelpfully amplified.
When To Gossip: What’s Your Personal Policy?
So… should we lean into gossip? It can be liberating just to realize you have a choice: You aren’t simply at the mercy of someone who decides to gossip with you. When making your choice, it’s important to remember that even beneficial truthful gossip negatively affects the reputation of others. Especially when it comes to a complex double-edged issue like this, I think it helps to have a personal policy. Like all personal policies, yours can be adjusted or even broken when needed. But without your own rule of thumb, it can be too easy to respond instinctively, rather than strategically, to a gossip episode.
The difference between constructive and destructive gossip can be subtle, so some people play it safe by following a strict rule of always squelching or walking away from gossip. While this policy secures them a place on the moral high ground, it keeps them from benefiting from the positive aspects of gossip.
A less conservative, yet still prudent approach is to engage in gossip only with those who have proven worthy, and to follow a no-tolerance policy regarding any signs of gossip malfeasance. When you’re thinking of whether to say “yes” to a lunch invitation from someone you know is a gossip, or whether to act on information passed on to you by a gossiper, ask yourself the following questions:
- Has the gossiper given you reason to trust him or her in other situations? Tread carefully if someone gossips during one of your first encounters or if the person has not been truthful with other types of information. Because gossip is often unverifiable, it makes sense to ignore informal observations or advice until a foundation of trust has been built in other areas.
- Has the gossiper ever conveyed information that turned out to be false or unhelpful? Untruthful gossip leads to few (if any) benefits, and unfairly influences the organizational reputations of others. If someone conveys information to you about othres that turns out to be exaggerated, misleading or false, that should set off alarms for all future gossip.
- Does the gossip undermine organizational norms? Some organizational norms are so egregious they should be questioned. But those who use gossip to destabilize a defensible corporate culture should be suspect.
- Is the gossip meant mainly to entertain? The most beneficial gossip centers on clarifying company norms and communicating information about the professional trustworthiness of those in the organization. If a gossiper is instead aiming to laugh at someone’s expense, it’s worth asking whether the trust violation is worth the benefits.
- Does the gossiper have self-serving motives? People rarely act in a completely selfless way. However, if you sense that a gossiper’s main motivation is, for example, to pull the rug out from under a perceived competitor at work, your no-tolerance policy should kick in.
- Is the gossiper breaking formal confidentiality rules? Many managers are in a position to learn things about others that they are expected or required to keep private. This includes information about job performance, salary, and personal problems. Be especially careful and tight-lipped around managers who violate these confidentiality expectations. Such people not only misunderstand the importance of their professional responsibilities but—if they are willing to share information about others with you—they are very likely to do the same with your information. And if you can, find a way to report their unethical behavior to a more senior manager.
Managing Gossip In The Moment
Let’s say you’ve decided not to indulge a gossiper. How can you avoid getting sucked in? Tactics range from active to passive. Active approaches involve sending an explicit signal of disapproval. These are less likely to be misunderstood or ignored, and can be effective in squelching harmful gossip at work. However, taking an explicit moral stance against others can have its own costs. Passive approaches are less likely to ruffle feathers, but send a weaker signal about where you stand. The right tactic will depend on your organizational role, the context, your audience, the topic of the gossip, and the target of the gossip:
- Express your disapproval. When gossip comes up, say “I’d rather not gossip—let’s talk about something else” or a softer “Would it be OK if we talked about something else?” Because this expresses explicit disapproval about the gossiper—not to mention everyone else who was ready to listen—a strong stance like this is harder to pull off the less senior you are.
- Change the subject. When gossip comes up about Jeremy, you can shift the conversation toward something else about Jeremy (“Oh, I saw pictures of Jeremy’s new baby the other day—so cute!”). To be more explicit about your disapproval, shift to a topic that has nothing to do with Jeremy.
- Exit the situation. When someone veers into gossip territory, you can excuse yourself to talk with someone nearby, finish your lunch early, or remember an imminent conference call you need to get to. Depending on how you choose to exit, you can be more or less explicit that you are leaving because of the gossip.
- Avoid the gossiper. This ensures you’re rarely put in a position where you have to try to squelch, deflect or depart. However, this tactic can be difficult if your responsibilities require you to interact with a gossiper. And sometimes, shunning a gossiper has its own costs. For example, if you and the gossiper have a common social network, evading the gossiper may mean avoiding your mutual friends as well.
I try to keep these rules in mind not only when someone is sharing gossip with me, but also when I’m considering sharing gossip with others. What are my motivations for sharing? Am I using someone’s confidential information mainly for self-serving reasons, or do I have more constructive aims? I have to admit, I do sometimes look back on a conversation from the day before and realize I not only shared gossip, but did it for the wrong reasons. Still, the policy helps keep me in line most of the time. And, even when I end up breaking them, the rules encourage me to reflect and to do better next time. Have you found that a personal policy helps you to avoid the drawbacks of gossip?