Four Tips For Managing Gossip in the Workplace

Forget prime-time TV - our working environs can often provide more drama than an episode of Gray’s Anatomy. It’s fairly predictable. Whenever people get together in close quarters like we have at work, it naturally brings out some of the worst in human behavior – most notably, in workplace gossip.

A CEO friend of mine was approached recently by an employee who complained that a co-worker was trying to poison him. When he told me, I laughed at first, because that is just so hilarious, to think someone is so paranoid as to imagine a co-worker is trying to poison him. This sounds more like it came right out of a wacky comedy, like the “Nine to Five” movie with Dolly Parton and Lilly Tomlin. My friend then grimaced a bit, an unintended facial twist that said, “This is so ridiculous that I can hardly keep a straight face, but I feel so sorry for this poor sucker.”

He went on to tell me in very somber and professional tones how this employee had been concerned for his life - especially during break-time, when he suspected that a Certain Someone had tampered with his bag lunch, which had been kept in the unsecured office fridge. I would have just told this employee to order out more often, and stop taking chances with the unmonitored corporate refrigerator. But my CEO friend is much more sympathetic and kind towards his employees. He proceeded to launch a full-scale covert investigation on behalf of the suspicious employee. Nothing turned up, of course, but it made this person feel much safer.

Research Shows That Office Gossip Can Get Really, Really Mean!

The New York Times recently highlighted some research that had been reported in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, shedding new light on this ancient social pastime. Yes, I couldn’t believe it either, that gossip was actually the subject of scientific research. Or that there was such a thing as the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. After studying teachers at an elementary school who were dissatisfied with their principal, the researchers concluded that gossip at work was “a form of reputational warfare.” In the case of this school, the gossip not only affected the target, but in the end it brought everyone down.  The aticle concluded that wokrplace  gossip is not good for morale, or productivity, as you could imagine. Plus it can get really, really, mean. So what’s a balanced, good-intentioned, spiritually-inclined office worker to do?  Rather than recommending a "No Gossip" office zone (not realistic, they say), the authors suggest four handy tips to manage the flaming lips at work.

1. Use Pre-emptive Positive Evaluation.

This sounds complicated, but it’s actually Contemporary Ethnographer-speak for sticking up for someone. The researchers found that if, upon an office rival’s bitter attack on a co-worker, a quick, “Isn’t she doing a great job?” tends to shut it down. Obviously, because it makes it less fun to gossip if someone else is just going to throw a bucket of cold water on it by lifting up the other person.

2. Play Dumb.

If a sly co-worker tries to get around direct gossip per-se by using the ever-popular device of bitter sarcasm, you can calm the waters by simply asking the culprit to explain themselves. For instance, if they make a nasty remark about another worker such as, “Oh, real great job.” You can calmly ask exactly what they mean by that, in a pleasant and cheerful voice.

3.  Change the subject.

This might be the oldest trick in the book, and one that is less likely to leave you as a social outcast, or branded as the “gossip police.” When the conversation turns nasty, then turn the conversation! Always be prepared with a list of hot office topics that will pique the interest of the gossipers, to re-channel their nastiness into some productive conversation.

Evil Gossiper:  “OMG, did you see what Tina is wearing today? I'm surprised she hasn’t tried out for the lead role as the witch in "Wicked," with that horrid green get-up.”

You:  “Hey, speaking of green, how about that Going Green initiative that corporate is trying to introduce for creating a sustainable environment? Did you see the memo? My team has come up with some great ideas!”

4.  Get back to Work.

When things are spinning out of control, the last resort is to remind everyone of the most basic thing about life at the office: “Don’t we have some work to do here?” So, what about you? What did you think of Tina's outfit? And do you have  any better suggestions for dealing with gossip at work?

Post by Bradley J. Moore of Shrinking the Camel. Photo by nAncY, used with permission. Hat tip to Marcus for sending me the original article.