Office gossip can be amusing or informative. Gossiping can also be fatal to your career. When it’s your boss doing all the secret leaking, it can be toxic to the workplace.
I know enough from decades of working in office cultures from small to medium to enormous that if you have a manager or leader of your organization who slips you secrets on the sly about other people, clients, customers, competitors, or colleagues, she is likely also spreading rumors about you.
The best you can do is stay clean and above the fray. Do not repeat any gossip at work yourself and definitely do not divulge any reason to be the center of a juicy gossip rant. You can also do your best to have the gossip buck stop with you.
“If gossip has not been managed in the past, gossip tends to become a negative aspect of your work culture,” Susan M. Heathfield, management and organization development consultant who specializes in human resources issues, writes in The Balance. “If employees are talking about other employees in a negative manner, it can have serious consequences. Frequently, in a toxic gossip culture, there is a small group of employees who cause the problems."
Based on responses from 310 employees at a university hospital in Turkey, new research published in the Journal of Health Management shows that supervisor gossip can have a deleterious and negative effect on workers—specifically, that the correlation between gossip functions and organization revenge, as well as between job stress and organizational revenge, are significant . And this behavior can be changed.
“To improve the quality of the supervisor-subordinate relationship, supervisors should adopt a positive, informal communication style, and organizations should provide supervisors with information regarding the implications of workplace gossip, illustrating the substantial benefits of positive gossip and the potential drawbacks of negative gossip,” the authors conclude.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo and the University of Kentucky similarly concluded in a recent study in the 2017 edition of Journal of Applied Psychology that gossip in the workplace can go either way—positive when talking about upcoming promotions or kudos, personal successes, or achievements, but negative when it is malicious about personal failures or transgressions, untrue allegations, or false accusations.
Office gossip can be informative when accurate information serves as a warning about:
These include sexual harassment, illegal acts, or unethical breaches in the workplace. These can be warnings you need to heed, and this kind of information can protect and prepare you.
“Gossip about which men are dangerous, which men you shouldn't go on to lunch alone with—that sort of information is currency that women use to protect one another,” author Anne Helen Peterson of Buzzfeed tells NPR.
Preemptive rumors about a possible sale of the company, reorganizations, hirings, firings, new projects, or other yet-to-be-released intel can also help not hurt you. In my experience, the majority of this kind of scuttlebutt turns out to be true. So you may have a head start on cultural changes in direction that can affect you.
The negative kind of gossip you need to stop from your boss is the vicious brand of personal attack that has no relevance or application to your work or the work environment. Here’s how you put the brakes on gossiping from your boss that goes awry.
“This response, delivered with a good-natured smile, is a foolproof way of stopping a mean-spirited person in his or her tracks,” according to The Muse.
“Employees will look to you for what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable, and you need to ensure you are ‘walking the talk’ at all times and leading by example,” Lisa Quast, career coach and author, writes on Forbes.com.
“When someone talks negatively about a coworker, it’s often out of frustration, but there’s also a good chance the gossiper has a legitimate issue. If that’s the case, your best move is to acknowledge your colleague’s frustration, and then help create a solution,” Daniel Bortz writes on Monster.com.
“Unless you have absolute certainty that you can trust a coworker, the rule of thumb is plain and simple: Don't trust personal information with anyone at work that will be fodder for gossip,” writes Marcel Schwantes, principal and founder of Leadership From The Core, in Inc.
When gossip and rumors are particularly sinister, and the person creating the cauldron of ill will happens to be your boss, the best you can do is try these techniques and rise above the mess. The gossip may simmer down, and if it doesn't, it might be time to find a workplace culture where there is no trash talk allowed.
Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, editorial director at Take The Lead and senior leader with The OpEd Project. her most book is, Escape Points: A Memoir.
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