The Gossip Train: Tips for Mitigating Harmful Office Gossip

The Gossip Train is Ombuzz’s series of blog posts 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!

As discussed throughout “The Gossip Train” blog series, scholars have had difficulty researching and defining gossip given its complexity and elusiveness. Accordingly, there are a wide variety of definitions, which range from untrue malicious tales to innocuous chit-chat, helpful information, and tattling or venting to others without an intention of offering solutions or speaking with the person directly. Typically, the common elements of gossip include casual and unconstrained chatter about an absent third-party regarding information that may or may not be true. While not all gossip is bad, after all it is the key to navigating our social worlds, gossip that poisons rapport, maligns reputations, and contaminates cooperation is what needs to be addressed.  

As ombuds, people often ask us what they can do to manage gossip in the workplace. While some organizations resort to formal policies prohibiting or restricting gossip (more on that next month), let’s consider some antidotes to help prevent harmful gossip and options for addressing it when it inevitably happens.

Antidotes to mitigate harmful gossip in the workplace

  • Open and honest communication. As Tyler Keyworth, Assistant Director for the Office of Conflict Resolution at University of Colorado Boulder discussed during a September 20, 2022 Lunch and Learn, uncertainty breeds gossip. People need to make sense of the world around them. When they hear or see something that doesn’t make sense and they lack the necessary information to make sense of it, they often make assumptions to fill the knowledge void. This is a recipe for conflict and gossip! Clearly share facts as soon as possible and ask questions rather than accepting assumptions.  
  • Elicit input. To the extent possible, ask questions of those impacted before, during, and after decisions are made or changes are implemented. 
  • Foster camaraderie. People are less likely to malign those they know. Encourage employees to forge relationships and get to know each other as people. 
  • Model mutual regard. Consistently communicate behavioral expectations in policies verbal exchanges and demonstrate desired behaviors. Provide education about the negative consequences of harmful gossip. 

Gossip will happen. Below are ten tips to navigate harmful gossip: 

  1. Consider what’s being said and evaluate the harm. Is it harmless chatter? If so, intervening and calling it out could do more harm than good. Remember, not all gossip is bad. It depends on the context and how the information is being used. When idle chit-chat becomes negative, inflammatory and embarrassing to the person being spoken of, you are crossing the line into harmful gossip. In his article 9 Ways to Get Rid of Workplace Gossip Immediately, Marcel Schwantes poses several other questions you can ask yourself to distinguish harmless chatter and harmful gossip:
    1. Does it rejoice in the misfortune of others?
    2. Does it have a negative emotional charge, perpetuate conflict or perpetuate negativity?
    3. Does it hurt or damage the one being spoken of?
    4. Would you say it in front of the person’s face?
    5. Is it an unsubstantiated rumor?
  2. Stop it in its tracks. When what is being said is hurtful, malicious, disrespectful, etc., you might respond with, “I’m sorry to interrupt. I am not comfortable talking about XYZ.” Or perhaps, deflect the negative gossip by offering something positive about the person or situation being discussed. Avoid being adversarial as that could make matters worse. Use politeness and humor. 
  3. Address the gossipers. Speak with the perpetrators privately one-on-one and tactfully use specific examples to demonstrate how the behavior is affecting and disrupting the work environment. 
  4. Change the subject. Redirect the conversation to a neutral work-related topic. Weather is a good non sequitur.  
  5. Redirect. If the person is complaining about another person, suggest they speak with that person directly to address their concerns or, depending on the concern, take the concern to someone who has authority to investigate and take appropriate action if necessary.
  6. Model the desired behavior. When others around you engage in gossip let them know you will not participate, change the subject, or excuse yourself from the conversation. This will send the message to stop. 
  7. Be wise in what you share and with whom. Avoid sharing personal information that is fodder for gossip. Identify trusted co-workers and recognize serial gossipers. If they are gossiping about others, they will gossip about you too. 
  8. Address the pattern. If it’s a pattern of behavior that is causing harm and becoming destructive to the work environment, address the pattern. Without placing blame, share the impact the chronic gossiping is having and point out topics that might be offensive.
  9. Elevate. If gossip is becoming detrimental, consider getting the “boss” involved. If the “boss” is the problem, revert to options 2 and 5 or escalate to the next level. Leaders who support a healthy work environment should address the behavior and promote a positive culture.
  10. Encourage positive gossip. Create a culture where people share positive stories about work and each other. Communicate what you are proud of at work. Acknowledge colleagues for a job well done or for going above-and-beyond. Start team meetings or morning huddles with “wins” and positive gossip to reinforce desired values and behaviors. 

When gossip crosses the line from innocuous, garden-variety conversation to something potentially hurtful, harmful or becomes a liability, it’s time to intervene.

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

Related links:

Recording of the September 2022 lunch and learn, “The Gossip Train: What is Gossip and Why do we do it?“.
Recording of the November 2022 lunch and learn, “The Gossip Train: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Gossip Train: What Exactly is Gossip?
The Gossip Train: Why do We Gossip?
The Gossip Train: A Vicious Cycle
The Gossip Train: The Dark Side
The Gossip Train: Hidden Virtues
The Gossip Train: How Gossip Can Help Ombuds Work

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