Shhh! Wanna hear a secret? Gossip at work

We’ve all been told that gossip and rumour is an evil scourge of the workplace and must be stopped at all costs. There are numerous articles offering advice on how to kill the poisonous grapevine. We follow this advice and then wonder why it doesn’t work and the grapevine continues to flourish. The reason is that gossip intrigues human nature. Yes, gossip does serve a real purpose in our lives and this blog post will help you understand what this is and then how we might go about containing and shaping and pruning the grapevine rather than kill it outright.

Gossip is a term that comes from the old English word “God-sib” or godparent. In early modern England, when a birth was about to occur, women would gather at the home of the family and share stories while waiting for the arrival of the newborn. Over time our association with the word gossip has become negative and we focus on the negative aspects of it.

However, in some instances gossip, in the workplace, can serve a purpose. Research from different disciplines has demonstrated that gossip is useful in a number of ways including maintaining social cohesion; making comparison with others; to obtain power; reduce stress and anxiety and as entertainment.

So when is gossip good and when is it bad? The blurring of the line between good gossip and bad gossip will depend on the intent of the person telling the news and the way it is told. The news of a pregnancy in the workplace is usually a good news story:

Hey did you hear the news? Kim is pregnant and expecting twins! She is so happy.”

This example may be seen as good gossip. However, if we add a few bits here and there we can make it not so great.

“Hey, come over here. You didn’t hear it from me, but, you know how Kim has been desperately wanting to get Bill to marry her? Well now she’s pregnant! No wonder she is so happy. What do you think?”

In this example the story is the same but with a twist. Our storyteller has decided to embellish it a little with their personal view of the situation and innuendo to cast doubt over Kim’s motive in falling pregnant. Obviously this has the ability to hurt the subject of the gossip. So how do we trim the grapevine and keep it under control? Unfortunately there are no quick fixes, especially if gossip has been allowed to flourish in a workplace. Some things that may be useful include:

  • not passing on negative information about a colleague no matter how juicy it sounds;
  • confronting the gossiper if possible (however there are usually power issues at play which make this difficult);
  • displaying professionalism and not engaging in the darker aspects of the gossip by asking – “I wonder how Kim would feel if she heard us talking about her like this”.

Gossip is one of those difficult and secretive subjects that occurs in the workplace. It does serve a functional purpose but has a dark side and we all have a part to play to make sure our grapevine doesn’t become poisonous. It is important that we remember our collective roles in ensuring that the workplace is a safe, pleasant and productive environment for all.

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