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Pssst — Here’s How to Handle Office Gossip in 4 Easy Steps
Adobe Stock / pressmaster
Heather K Adams
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So your best office girlfriend slides up to your desk and says she's got something really juicy. She just heard from this guy that this woman said something really snarky about that guy. Who does she think she is?

Before you grab a cup of coffee and a quiet corner to dig into this hot office gossip tidbit, take a minute. Ask yourself, Do I know if any of this is true? And even if it is, is it any of my business? Chances are the answers are no and, you guessed it — no.

Rumors can be malicious. Office gossip isn't harmless. Beyond creating an unpleasant atmosphere in which to work, there can be real consequences to gossip, ones that damage both personal and professional reputations. Let's take a closer look at what gossip means in the workplace, the harm it can do and a few things you can do when dealing with the office grapevine.

What is office gossip?

Gossip is any talk based only on rumor, or conclusions made from overheard conversations, full-blown stories drawn out of slim half-truths. Take any information shared with you as the latest bit of scintillating office "news" with a very large grain of salt. If you aren't hearing something directly from the source, always question its validity, and think twice before passing it along.

If you don't learn to question office gossip, you run the risk of passing on lies as truth, and causing issues for others (or yourself) somewhere down the line. If you went to high school (or watched literally any 1980s movie about high school), you already have an idea of how much damage even the smallest bit of gossip can do.

5 ways office gossip destroys a company's culture

Dealing with gossip in your personal life is unpleasant. In a work situation? The rumor mill can be downright dangerous. It creates a toxic work environment, which in turn can put the reputation of the entire business at risk.

1. Kills the idea of "team."

Nobody wants to work with someone they've learned talks about them behind their backs. This kind of passive-aggressive bullying can be difficult to confront or stop, and can also build to a point where nobody in the office even trusts each other. When everyone is eyeing everyone else with suspicion, no one's going to feel like they're part of a team.

2. Creates the office scapegoat.

When gossip picks out a specific individual to target more than others, it creates a scapegoat, toward which all the frustrations of the office become directed. This is the person everyone ends up rolling their eyes about, whose name becomes synonymous with laziness, or being a bore, or never getting their work done right. Horrible for that person, obviously, but you know what? It creates an environment of fear for everyone in the office, because no one wants to be the next scapegoat.

3. Affects work performance.

When office politics becomes elevated to Game of Thrones-level jockeying, who can pay attention to work? This might sound like an exaggeration, but if you've ever worked in an office where there's always a bit of whispering going on, and if you started to feel like you were the one always being whispered about, you know just how intense this environment can get. It can affect anyone's ability to do their work well.

4. Creates a toxic atmosphere.

Beyond making it difficult to do your job, a gossip-laced office will start to make even coming into work a challenge. Some people thrive on navigating and manipulating the rumor mill, but most of us don't do well in such a negative environment. When office gossip takes over, it kills all the good vibes that once made you so glad to go into work every day.

5. Affects retention and reputation.

When news of a gossipy work environment gets out, people (especially potential job seekers) pay attention to it. No one wants to work for a business where they feel like they have to choose sides, or always watch their backs, in order to feel "safe." Once your company is labeled as such an unpleasant place to work, it's going to face an uphill battle getting rid of the stigma. Paired with the fact that people currently working there will start to leave, trading a toxic office culture for somewhere happier, this could spell big trouble for any company.

4 ways to manage office gossip

Office gossip doesn't have to be something that gets out of hand. From calm, direct confrontation to creating your own positive counter-culture, there are actionable steps you can take to slay the rumor dragon.

1. Confront with class.

This is by no means permission to have a knock-down, drag-out battle royale in the break room. But if you've been told that someone has said something unkind or critical about you, work up the courage to say something directly to the person who said it. Scary? Sure. But also necessary. A simple "Kate, I heard you were unhappy with my performance on our last project together. Can we talk more about why?" will go a long way toward keeping chatter in check, at least where you're concerned. Once people know you don't play by office gossip rules, they'll all be much less inclined to include your name in their rumors.

2. Counter snark with love.

Rather than get sucked into the gossip culture around you, which is so often about snide comments and sarcasm, make a point to replace negativity with positivity. You can generate your own happy atmosphere by being free with your compliments to everyone you work with. Share something good about one coworker to another. And trust that this culture of compliment will take root and spread. It might sound corny, but it also works: Don't hate. Appreciate.

3. Lead by example.

Let it be known that the buck stops with you. Saying, "Oh, I don't like to talk about someone I don't know" or, "I really don't care for gossip" can be a cold dash of water over a toxic environment (or, ahem, person). A bold move when it comes to the rumor mill, taking this polite but firm stance will give others a script to follow. The pressure to gossip is difficult to stand up to, but if even one person does, then others will too. So if you lead by example, others will follow.

4. Get help from above.

Consult your employee handbook, and any communications from HR, management or above for information on your company's stance on office gossip. If it feels like the negativity is getting out of hand, reaching out to someone higher up the ladder is definitely an option. Bringing the potentially reputation-damaging situation to their attention could save everyone a lot of stress later on.

When to report office gossip

This isn't high school, or the jungle for that matter. Survival of the fittest doesn't apply in the office. While there will always of course be a bit of scuttle-butt to deal with, don't let office gossip reach a level of toxicity that endangers the mental well-being of yourself or your coworkers (let alone the reputation of your company). 

You all deserve to work in a safe and positive environment. Report any issues when you feel like they've reached a level that makes it difficult to perform your work, or affects your desire to come in at all. Because office gossips are essentially bullies, and bullying is not okay.

Final thought

Office gossip is unpleasant and unproductive. Nip it before it really takes root, dragging you, your coworkers and even you company down into the mud.

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