How to Shut Down Gossip at Work


Dear JobAdvisor,

I like my job and my co-workers, but there’s one thing that keeps bugging me: There’s a real culture of gossiping, and I keep getting sucked into it. I used to be a huge gossiper myself, but at a previous job I was the target of some untrue and hurtful gossip, and since then I’ve really tried to reform my own habits.

At the same time, I’m aware that completely opting out of office gossip means I could miss out on information that would be helpful for me to know. I also don’t want to come across as chilly or reserved or like I’m judging other people. How do I shut down gossip when people try to share it with me without harming my relationships with those colleagues? Is that even possible? Or do I just need to get over it and accept that some amount of gossip will always be normal in a workplace and I’m being unrealistic in thinking I can opt out of it?

You’re right to be wary of participating too much in office gossip — and you’re also right to be thinking about the ways that some amount of “being in the know” can benefit you professionally. Those two things can be tough to balance, but it can be done.

Gossiping at work is one of those things that can give you a thrill at the moment. The pleasure of knowing something that isn’t public! The lure of unflattering information! But there can be a hangover afterward when you feel guilty and have to wonder if whoever gossiped to you might also be gossiping about you.

A gossip-heavy work culture can also be pretty toxic. It can create an us vs. them dynamic or one where rumors carry more weight than public announcements, and it can spread a generalized negativity that decreases people’s quality of life and is unkind and disrespectful to the people being gossiped about. So you’re right to want to shut it down.

But not all gossip is harmful. Some types can even be helpful. Harmful gossip is probably pretty clear — if something seems mean-spirited or is clearly none of your business, like information about a colleague’s personal life, go ahead and shut that down. The same goes for gossip that’s just idle speculation, like “Bob has been out a lot lately; I wonder if he’s looking for another job.” But other times the information might be genuinely helpful for you to know — for example, that a senior colleague has a track record of creeping on women, or that the company is considering eliminating a project you spend most of your time on. If the info falls more in the “this isn’t public but might assist you professionally” category, it’s wise to pay attention. A lot of really useful information gets shared informally in that way.

But as for harmful gossip, how to shut it down depends on the details.

One option is to simply say directly that you’re trying to cut down on gossiping. For example, you could say, “I’m trying to be better about not gossiping! I’ve realized how harmful it can be, and I know I don’t want people gossiping about me, so I’m trying to be more disciplined about it.” If the co-worker is someone you’re pretty close with, you could even ask if they want to join you in doing that; sometimes it’s easier to stop gossiping when you can reinforce each other’s resolve.

If that doesn’t feel quite right, you can instead shut it down incident by incident. For example, you could say, “You know, I feel unkind talking about this. We should probably give Katie privacy on this.” Or “Oof. I don’t think he’d want us talking about that.” Or “That sounds like something we don’t have all the info on and should probably stay out of.”

Or you can just try a short, neutral acknowledgment followed immediately by a subject change. For example: “Hmmm, that sounds tough. Hey, while I have you here, can I ask you about these revenue reports?” (Other neutral transitions: “That’s too bad”; “Oh, I hope she’s doing okay”; “I’m sorry to hear that”; “Oh, I hadn’t heard that.”) If the quick subject change doesn’t work and the person tries to steer the conversation back to the gossip, you can say more directly, “I feel odd talking about it behind her back,” or “That sounds like something I’m probably not supposed to know,” or even “I think I should pretend not to know that.”

If you know the information someone is sharing is supposed to be confidential, you can say that too. For example: “Oooh, I think Sam actually intends for that to be kept confidential, so I don’t think we should be talking about it.” That’s useful whether it’s work-related or not; if you know that someone doesn’t want something shared, it’s a kindness to all involved to make sure that’s clear. One exception to this: If it’s work-related and you believe the confidentiality is against your co-workers’ interests (like if the company is doing something illegal or unsafe), you’d have different ethical obligations.

One other consideration: If someone is badmouthing a colleague and you disagree with their assessment, it’s a good move to push back with something positive (just as you’d probably want someone to do if you were the one being talked about). For example: “Huh, really? I’ve always found Jane to be really easy to work with” (or smart, or great at her job, or whatever your experience has been).

In fact, you might think about counteracting your office’s gossip culture with “good gossip” — positive comments that you wouldn’t mind getting back to the person you’re talking about, like how much you like working with them or how much a client raved about a project they did. Over time, making a point of sharing sincere, positive comments can have a real impact on the culture in your office, or at least on the culture in your immediate vicinity.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post