Indecent Disclosure: Office Gossip Can Hurt Your Career

It’s often irresistible, the juicy rumor.

Psst…. Did you hear that Laura is sleeping with the boss? Did you know that John came into work drunk last week? That Donna steals her co-workers’ cans of pop from the company refrigerator?

Everyone loves juicy gossip. It’s human nature. But it’s also hurtful to the people about whom we’re gossiping. And too much gossip can prove particularly destructive to an office. In fact, it can tear apart an otherwise well-functioning group of people.

“Gossip is part of human nature. It’s one of the world’s oldest sins, the sin of the wagging tongue,” said Nan DeMars, owner of Minneapolis’ Executary Services, a firm that provides ethics seminars, business consulting and job-placement services. “People want to gossip because it makes them feel important. Unfortunately, gossip can be very painful to its victims.”

Particularly venomous gossip can turn an otherwise productive employee into an outcast, one who’s too embarrassed to speak her mind during meetings or even ask her manager for a raise. And these days, because most people spend the majority of their waking hours in their offices, destructive office gossip can make their entire lives miserable.

A recent study by Britain’s Industrial Society brought the subject of office gossip back into the news. The authors of the study, “New Community or New Slavery,” concluded that some gossip was good for an office. They found that employees feel as if they are part of a team when they participate in gossip, and that gossip helps them form friendships and alliances.

But workplace experts disagree. They say that while office gossip may help some form friendships, it makes others feel as if they are outsiders. When office gossip becomes vicious, it can cause mental and physical problems in its victims, resulting in a less productive workforce.

But there are steps that you can take to prevent office gossip from tearing apart your workplace. If you’re a manager, you can prevent it from starting in the first place. If you’re an employee, you can do your part to stop rumors before they spread. If you’re a victim, you can protect your reputation by taking action.

Ingrid Murro Botero, president of Murro Consulting, a Phoenix-based management consulting firm and corporate outplacement firm, often sees the impact of office gossip. In fact, she saw one of her clients (let’s call him “Fred”) face office rumors as soon as he took a new job. Shortly after establishing himself at a new company, Fred received a telephone call from a former co-worker. After some small talk, the former co-worker asked Fred how his relationship with his fiancée was going. After telling his co-worker that things were great, and that his wedding plans were moving along on schedule, Fred asked why his co-worker would ask him such a question.

The reason? His co-worker had heard during a business reception that Fred had been sleeping with his new boss.

Instead of ignoring the rumor, Fred took the direct, if often uncomfortable, approach. He spoke with his new boss, who then found the source of the rumor, confronted that source and put a stop to the gossip.

This, Murro Botero says, is the best way to handle office gossip if you are its victim.

“The direct approach is the way to handle a damaging rumor,” she advises. “It’s the best way to head it off quickly.”

It’s natural for workers to segregate themselves into groups, Murro Botero says. For instance, women with young children will naturally congregate because they have something in common. These groupings only become damaging to a company when the groups begin gossiping about others in the office, Murro Botero says.

When gossip threatens an office’s stability, managers can take several steps. Murro Botero recommends that managers deal with the rumors quickly, rather than letting them fester. They should speak to the employees involved in spreading the rumor both individually and as a group. Managers should also set up one-to-one meetings between the subject of the rumor and each person responsible for spreading it.

To prevent rumors from starting in the first place, managers should make sure that office communication is always encouraged in the office, Murro Botero says. At small companies, managers can schedule monthly meetings where employees are encouraged to air their concerns about the workplace. At larger companies, managers can set up a hotline number where employees can call in with their concerns, she says.

Employees, of course, have less power to stop office gossip. But they can make sure they don’t become part of it. Employees should immediately walk away when their co-workers start gossiping, business ethicist Nan DeMars says. The gossipmonger should get the hint. If the gossip is malicious, employees should tell their co-workers that what they’re saying sounds like nothing more than a rumor that probably isn’t even true, she says.

“Never encourage a gossip, even passively,” DeMars advises. “Otherwise you’ll get sucked in. You have to be direct to let the gossip know that you’re not interested.”

Walking away from gossip – no matter how juicy the tidbits may be – is not only morally correct, but in your self-interest. “If someone gossips with you, you can bet that they will gossip about you, too,” DeMars says. “Some people love to gossip. They want to gossip as much as possible because it makes them feel important.”

And if you’re the subject of office gossip? Then it’s time for some confrontation. Ashkan Karbasfrooshan, vice president of corporate development and young professional columnist with the online men’s magazine, recommends that employees approach the source of the rumors. By doing this, they can find out why their co-worker spread the rumor and clear up any misconceptions. Once confronted, most office gossips will quickly back down and apologize.

“As a rule, confrontation in the workplace generally isn’t good. But it is good if the truth comes out as a result of it,” Karbasfrooshan says. “Maybe a confrontation will result in five minutes of awkward time. It’s worth it if it can help end the rumors. Don’t forget, you’re not at a schoolyard. You’re at work. It’s supposed to be professional.”

Employees should also refrain from fighting fire with fire.

“If you hear an untrue rumor about yourself, you have to attack it head on,” DeMars says. “You have to clear it up by confronting the person who started the rumor. But whatever you do, don’t respond with a counter rumor. That doesn’t help anything, and it lowers you to the level of the original gossip.”

Employees can also do their part to stop the spread of gossip by approaching the victims of office rumors and telling them what’s going on and who’s spreading the rumors. This then gives the victims the chance to confront the office gossip.

“If you feel bad after hearing these rumors, by all means, talk to the person who is being gossiped about,” Karbasfrooshan says. “You have the right to inform them about what is going on.”

And those workers who thrive on office gossip better watch out. They might one day face repercussions from their rumor-spreading ways. Just ask DeMars.

One of her clients, a top official at General Mills, had just lost his executive secretary to retirement and needed to replace her. He had three candidates in mind, all who worked as secretaries in cubicles just outside his office door. All three had the same excellent qualifications. But something set one of the candidates apart: While her two co-workers started every morning by gossiping about their fellow employees, the third would politely excuse herself to get a cup of coffee, make a telephone call or catch up on some work. The executive hired the third worker.

“The best rule for yourself is a simple one: If the person who you’re talking about hears what you have to say, would you mind?” DeMars said. “If they would, then don’t say it.”

DeMars has good reason for giving this advice. The way she sees it, office gossip never dies. Instead, it circulates from cubicle to cubicle until the subject of the rumor eventually hears it. And when that person finds out you were the one starting the rumor, you may be in store for some deservedly uncomfortable days at the office. The odds are good that you’ll never regain that co-worker’s trust.

So, even though we all know that office gossip is hurtful, and most often the rumors it generates aren’t even true, then why do most of us persist in lapping it up? That’s simple: Gossip is undeniably interesting. Why else would newspapers devote entire columns to it?

“Like anything else, advice on stopping gossip is easier to give than it is to follow,” Karbasfrooshan says.

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