Managing Gossip and Bullying In The Office
It’s a sad fact that bullying doesn’t go away once you’re out of high school. According to a survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute, 60.4% of American were affected by workplace bullying. (2017 Workplace Bullying Institute US Survey).
You may ask, what does bullying have to do with gossip in the office?
While it may feel like idol chitchat, gossip is actually bullying dressed up as “information sharing.” How do you know when the conversation crosses over to gossip? As a baseline, if you wouldn’t say the comments to the person’s face, there’s a really strong possibility you’re engaging in gossip. Here are some other signs:
- If the information being shared is negative, inflammatory or could hurt the person you’re talking about, it’s gossip.
- If the information being shared would embarrass the person you’re talking about, you’ve crossed the line from idle chitchat to gossip.
- Is it an unsubstantiated rumor about a person (whether in the office or in their personal life)? It’s gossip.
Why care about gossip in the office?
Many leadership experts agree that gossiping is a key indicator of an unhealthy organization – employees are too busy stabbing one another in the back to actually get the job done and/or function as a team. As you might imagine, that negativity culminates in a serious lack of trust and employee morale takes a major hit as well (along with creativity and productivity).
Why is gossip so pervasive?
In most instances, gossip is typically due to jealousy – one employee is fearful that another employee has an advantage over them. What better way to derail someone’s career than to talk about them behind their back (when they can’t defend themselves)?
The challenge though is that as humans, we tend to have a strong negative bias; meaning we give more weight (and pay more attention to) negative comments vs. anything in the positive. As an example, think about the last time you posted something to Instagram or Facebook and following a string of positive comments, someone slammed your post. Which comment do you stew on? The 100 positive comments or the one negative rebuke (unfortunately, in most instances, it’s the latter).
That tendency to focus on the negative spills over to the information we hear about other people and the data supports it: research by Stanford University shows that “we take negative gossip about others more seriously because we view it as useful information to protect ourselves.” Interesting….
What should I do if I hear gossip about me?
First (and perhaps most difficult), is try to keep your emotions under control. When we’re upset, it’s easy to spiral into bad behavior which can affect our performance. And if you’re not performing to your boss’ expectations, there’s a chance your long-term career potential at the company could be compromised. So, step #1 is to definitely keep doing good work for your boss (including hitting deadlines and overdelivering on your promises). Some good tactics to help with that include practicing deep breathing exercises, working out, yoga and/or other mindfulness activities, repeatedly checking deadlines, etc.
If you work for a cool boss, I think it’s worthwhile chatting with her or him about what you’re hearing and how they suggest you tackle overturning the negative chatter. Remember, your boss is invested in your success, so bringing them in the loop can be a beneficial in your overall learning experience. After all, when you’re a great employee, chances are this may not be the last time your fellow employees talk about you (because you’re doing great work!). So, enlist her or his help on how to combat the negative ninnies in your office.
Take It To The Source
Now, if you can pinpoint the person who is doing the gossiping, it may be worthwhile to have a chat with them about what you’ve heard and how it’s affecting your ability to get your job done. Be prepared though for the person to deny any involvement at which point, ask them if they would be comfortable acting as your emissary to stop further gossip from spreading. Two things can happen from the conversation: 1) they know they are busted and they may stop and 2) hopefully by being honest, you’re enlisting them in being your cheerleader.
Now, it can also backfire and the person ramps up their gossiping, but by discussing the situation with them, you’ve done what you can to try to correct their negative thinking about you. At that point, if the gossip continues, it’s definitely time to bring in your boss or HR if you’ve not done so already.
Another option available to you is just to ignore it. Eleanor Roosevelt (diplomat, activist and 1st Lady of the US from 1933 – 1945) said “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” Try to not get caught up in their drama. Instead, stay focused on kicking ass at your job. Let your performance speak for you. And if it becomes untenable and you head to a new opportunity, then leave them with a giant hole to fill because of your awesomeness.
Depending on how severe and pervasive the gossip is, you may want to dust off your company’s Anti-Harassment Policy and talk with HR on how they might be able to help over turn the negativity.
What can you do as an employee to help eliminate gossip in the office?
- Don’t engage. Gossipers need someone to listen to them. Don’t be that ear for whomever gossips in the office. I love this unknown quote: “Gossip dies when it hits a wise person’s ears.” So just don’t engage. Be assertive and ask the person to stop, walk away, or change the subject when the gossip starts. The message you’re communicating to others is that the behavior won’t be tolerated.
- Let the boss know. If you have a pervasive gossiper in your group that constantly bashes other people in the group, be brave and let your boss know. A good manager will have a discussion with the entire team about how that is not acceptable behavior and won’t be tolerated.
- Discuss with HR. In many companies, gossip is a form of harassment and should be protected by your company’s anti-harassment policy. Talk with her or him about how to handle gossipmongers and what steps you should take to shield yourself from getting involved.
- Counter with something positive. If you find yourself in with a group who of your fellow employees who are gossiping, turn it back on the gossiper by saying something positive about the person. Keep countering their negative comments with positives and hopefully they will take the hint and stop their toxic behavior (at least around you anyway).
What can you do if you’re a manager?
If you’re in a management position, it’s a great idea to being your team together and discuss the topic of gossip. Educate them on the negative consequences that occur when employees are gossiping about one another (it destroys morale, productivity plummets, silos are created, massive turnover, etc.). Then enact a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on workplace gossip in your department and that breaking the expectation is a breach in performance (and you face the risk of disciplinary action or even termination).
If you personally hear gossip (or an employee comes to you to let you know about gossip circulating in your group, address the issue head on. Call on any employees who gossip and remind them how detrimental their behavior is to the department and that it won’t be tolerated. If it continues, follow your company’s performance management process to write them up. Hopefully that will correct the situation, but if it doesn’t, be prepared to follow through on terminating someone with such negative behavior.
As a final thought, managers can encourage positive gossip about where employees share positive stories about their fellow employee. As an example, create a culture where employees can readily share (and revel in) on of their fellow employees going above-and-beyond to help a customer. Sharing positive stories encourages similar behavior in others and can help reinforce the cultural values and key behaviors you want to permeate your organization.
A very wise Turkish proverb says “Who gossips to you, will gossip of you.”
Understand that if encounter an employee who is gossiping about others, you can bet that they will be gossiping about you at some point. So, your best bet is to not engage in gossip from Day 1 in the office (or to immediately pull back and stop engaging if you have in the past). Also, remember to keep your private life private and DON’T connect with co-workers on social media. It’s pretty simple: Don’t trust personal information with anyone at work that will be fodder for gossip.
This guest post was authored by Val Grubb
Val is a sought-after HR authority, speaker, executive coach, author and trainer for small to medium sized companies wishing to expand as well as larger companies seeking efficiencies in their human capital and people processes. She is also the “Work Place Coach” at TONE Networks, an online resource and community for women who want to grow in their personally and professional lives. At TONE Val dishes out concise “How To” expertise in short form videos dealing with work place harassment, dealing with the “office hot head”, how to ask for a raise and so much more.
She is a visionary operations expert with an exceptional ability to zero in on the systems, processes, and issues that can hamper a company’s growth. Valerie founded Val Grubb & Associates, Ltd. after holding senior roles at major corporations including NBC Universal, Oxygen Media, IAC and Rolls-Royce. From hiring to firing and everything in between, Val focuses on people issues so senior leaders can get back to running their business. Valerie graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Kettering University and obtained her MBA from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. She is an alumni of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program and she currently serves as the President of the Board of Directors for the New Orleans Film Society. She has published two books: Planes, Canes, and Automobiles: Connecting with Your Aging Parents through Travel (Greenleaf) and Clash of the Generations: Managing in the New Workplace Reality (Wiley).