The Gossip Train is the University of Colorado Ombuds’ series of blog posts and lunch and learns on all things gossip. We will explore the origins of gossip, why we gossip, the joys and dangers of gossip, and what you can do when gossip is not helpful!

“Did you hear Chris is sleeping with the boss?” “Pat is a racist.” “Taylor is out sick AGAIN. I heard they have a drinking problem.” “Director Smith missed the deadline. I’ve heard they are truly incompetent.”

In the first post of this series, The Gossip Train: What Exactly is Gossip?, we established that gossip is endowed with several meanings. It covers everything from juicy, delicious, fun chatter; to informative and truthful insights; to hurtful, malicious, harmful smear. It can be seen as a gift or a weapon. Why do we do it? As Lisa Neale discussed in The Gossip Train: Why do We Gossip?, we gossip for many reasons: to wield power or social status, as a political strategy, for social grooming, to question legitimate goals and actions, or to undermine authority. It can also create strong bonds, foster teamwork, help funnel information and knowledge, allow us to make sense of our surroundings, test new ideas, serve as an early warning sign of problems to come, or simply entertain us –a pleasurable activity distracting us from the daily mundane.

Anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists explain it is a natural part of being human. In fact, thousands of years ago, our ancestors used gossip as a social tool to garner support against outgroups and to leverage status within the group. Dr. Ottilia Brown, Clinical Psychologist at Lighthouse Arabia in Dubai explains, at that time, gossip provided valuable information that facilitates survival and thriving and was used to bond with others or to alienate those who were not cooperative. Gossip is essentially a social tool that has survived generations and is still used to navigate social settings. Whether we like it or not, humans are wired to gossip. Where there are people, there is gossip.

Unfortunately, most workplace gossip takes a critical form and is used as a weapon to advance one person’s self-interest by capitalizing on another’s misfortune. This is often accomplished by spreading malicious rumors to elevate status or remove someone from a social group, bullying, or harming someone’s reputation with shame, slander and sharing humiliating stories with others for comic relief. Negative consequences of this sort of workplace gossip include: 

  • Erosion of trust and morale,
  • Lost productivity and wasted time,
  • Increased anxiety among employees as rumors circulate without clear information as what is and is not fact,
  • Divisiveness among employees as people take sides,
  • Hurt feelings and reputations, and
  • Attrition due to good employees leaving the organization because of an unhealthy work environment.

Consider this all-too-common scenario:

Camden, Tanner and Remy are best work friends. They take walks together during breaks, enjoy coffee and lunch together at least once a week, leave inspirational notes on each other’s desks, and sometimes get their families together for weekend activities. They talk about anything and everything. They talk about their weekend plans, about their favorite books and movies, about their spouses and children, and, of course, work and their colleagues. “Did you hear about Jesse?” asked Camden. Jesse is one of their teammates who is very popular and politically savvy. They seem to always get what they ask for and are deemed the boss’s favorite. “I hear they are having an affair with Reese, the new finance manager, and might be taking some additional liberties with their expense reports too!” “Oooh!” said Tanner and Remy. “And did you get a load of Reese during yesterday’s leadership meeting? They couldn’t navigate the AV equipment in the conference room and kept stumbling over the monthly report. It was embarrassing,” remarked Remy. Remy was newer to the company yet didn’t seem to remember what it felt like to adapt and fit into a new environment. “And Toni! I have not seen them since we all went remote during the pandemic. I think they put on some weight!” laughed Tanner. Camden and Remy chuckled. They chit-chat a bit more before heading home to their families all feeling a bit smug for being “in-the-know”. 

The next day, while in the supply closet gathering some pens and desk supplies, Camden overheard Tanner and Remy talking in the staff lounge. “Do you know what Toni told me about Camden?” began Tanner. “No, what?” asked Remy with a little more eagerness than Camden would have expected. “Camden received a two for communication on her performance review,” whispered Tanner. “Wow! That’s terrible. Poor Camden.” said Remy.  When Camden heard that they stopped in their tracks. First, it wasn’t true. They received  a three, not a two. Second, why were Tanner and Remy gossiping about them? They were supposed to be work buddies and allies. Camden stayed in the storage closet until Tanner and Remy returned to their desks. 

Later that week, while using the restroom, Remy overheard Toni and Reese chatting by the sinks. “I overheard some of the others talking about your struggle with the AV equipment during the leadership meeting. Let me know if you want some help with it next time. And oh, I don’t know what’s going on between you and Jesse, but be aware, they are the boss’s pet and there is a rumor going around that the two of you are fudging their expense reports.” Reese looked stricken and responded with a quiet, “Oh! Okay, thanks I guess.” Remy cringed and lifted their feet.

While the participants likely thought these were benign exchanges among friends and colleagues, I can certainly anticipate negative consequences for the individuals, the relationships, the team, and the organization. They include: malicious rumors harming reputations, hurt feelings, factual inaccuracies, undermining leadership, erosion of trust leading to low morale and low productivity, and divisiveness among the team. 

What else? 

For more on negative consequences of workplace gossip, check out The Gossip Train: A Vicious Cycle

By: Elizabeth Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office