You Got Caught Gossiping At Work — Now What?

© Maridav / Adobe Stock

Stressed out woman

© Maridav / Adobe Stock

Alex Wilson
Alex Wilson
July 23, 2024 at 8:32PM UTC
So you’re chatting with your work BFF and the conversation slides from what you did on your weekend to what Linda, the co-worker you don’t get along with, said in that meeting you had earlier. And at exactly the wrong time, Linda walks by and hears you talking about her.
It doesn’t matter whether what you were saying was positive or negative. Gossiping at work — and getting caught for it — is not okay. If you don’t immediately start doing damage control, getting caught gossiping can create irreparable damage to your professional reputation.  But don’t panic! We’ve got you covered.

What Is Gossiping in the Workplace?

Gossiping in the workplace occurs when one or more coworkers talk about other coworkers, the company or management behind their backs. Gossip might have to do with workplace relationships, confidential information about the company, or information about a co-worker's private life.

How Does Gossip Affect the Workplace?

Gossip affects the workplace by hurting the workplace culture.  The more people gossip, the more private information that shouldn't be shared will be shared — and the more  false information will make its rounds.

How Do You Deal with Gossipers at Work?

If you're not the gossiper at work, try your best to remove yourself from the company of gossipers at work. You don't want to include yourself in gossipy conversations or get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. You should do your best to keep all of your workplace relationships and conversations professional.
If you are indeed the gossiper, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to fix your office faux pas.

What to Do if You Get Caught Gossiping at Work

1. Don’t Apologize Immediately

While this sounds counterintuitive, immediately apologizing to your coworker can worsen the effect of getting caught gossiping. Not only would that apology sound disingenuous, it would sound like you’re only sorry that you got caught —not that you’re sorry for gossiping in the first place.
Instead, as soon as somebody sees you gossiping, stop talking. Don’t finish the sentence, don’t make a joke, don’t try to pretend like you were talking about something else — just stop. If the person you’re speaking with tries to continue, convince them to stop as well. That doesn’t mean you should whisper “shut up!”  or cover your colleague’s mouth with your hand. Gently say “let’s have this discussion another time” and quickly segue to another topic.

2. Take a Minute

So you got caught gossiping. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person; gossiping is a habit all of us fall into now and again. Before you talk to anyone else about your misstep, take a minute to think back on the situation. Was your venting for a good reason and just misplaced? Were you using the opportunity to get something off of your chest that’s been bothering you for a long time? Did you accidentally fall down a rabbit hole of watercooler gossip?
Take a moment to self-reflect and figure out exactly why you were gossiping.  When you apologize (because you’ll definitely be apologizing), you’ll want to explain what you should have done instead.

3. Bring in a Third Party, if Needed

When you apologize, you need to have an honest, open conversation with your co-worker. If you feel that you’d be more comfortable with a mediator there, find a person to fill that role for you. This can be your supervisor or an HR representative. You don’t want to pull people into this situation that weren’t involved in the first place, so try not to bring in other co-workers.

4. Approach Your Co-Worker

Reach out to your colleague as politely as possible and ask if they have a few moments to talk. If they say no, respect that and ask that they let you know when they’re free. You’re in the wrong here, so you need to act as if you’re on “their turf” and respect the way they’re feeling. (Imagine that the situation was flipped. Wouldn’t you feel awful too?)
If your colleague does immediately agree to talk to you, find a private space to talk. If they say they don’t want to talk to you at all, you can still send an apology via email that will encompass the same talking points as a verbal apology (listed out below).

5. Own up to Your Mistake and Apologize

Once you are in a private space, you can start the conversation with a statement that includes:
  1. The initial apology
  2. What you should have done instead
  3. Reassurance that it won’t happen again
Your apology should be short, concise and a good starting point for a productive conversation. Here’s an example:
“Thanks for meeting with me, Linda. I want to apologize for discussing your presentation without involving you in the conversation. I know that instead of telling Drew how frustrated I was, I should have spoken directly to you. I should have the situation differently, and I’m very sorry that I didn’t. I’m going to work hard to make sure that I don’t disrespect you that way again.” 
Notice how the above apology uses “I” instead of “we,” “us” or other group pronouns. Owning up to your mistakes (and keeping the blame on you) will re-assure your colleague that you truly are sorry and aware of the mistake that you made.
After your initial apology, let your co-worker talk and truly listen to what they’re saying. They may not forgive you immediately, and that's okay. While they’re probably offended by the gossip and may want to discuss that further, this is a chance to talk about your relationship as colleagues and how to strengthen it moving forward.  
Use this opportunity to get on the same page and learn how to better work together. Not only will you and your co-worker feel great, your team will too.

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