What to Do About Office Gossip
Gossip has no place in the workplace. What do you do when you’re faced with it?
Karen was working in her office, minding her own business. The phone rang and interrupted her concentration. It was a woman she had worked with three months before, calling to tell her something she didn’t want to hear – there was a rumor going around her old agency that she had slept with Byron, her former boss, and that that was why she had been fired.
Karen was stunned. It wasn't true that she had slept with Byron. They had had nothing but a professional relationship – besides, she hadn't been fired. It was a temporary job, she was hired for only one year.
“What?” asked Karen on the phone. “What are you talking about? I never did that. Who told you that?”
Those familiar exclamations of outrage are usually followed by disbelief or panic, taken with two aspirins or a grain of salt depending on whether the gossip you heard is rumor, reality, or some exaggerated combination of both.
Scandalous news about a co-worker's sex life automatically sets mouths in motion and frantic fingers to the telephone dial to pass on the trash to someone else. But sex is not the only item that perks up itchy ears— connections, success, family, business ethics, finances—anything about you may be game for gossip unless you know how to prevent it. You have to know what information you listen to, what you repeat, and whom you repeat it to.
Most people operate on instinct – a sense of trust that a piece of information that they confide to someone else remains a secret if they say, “Promise not to tell...” That promise may be an invitation to initiate the first round of rumors. In order to deal with gossip in your life, you have to know who's playing the game. What kind of people gossip? Those who gossip to you are likely to gossip about you. There are coworkers or acquaintances who are competitive and use gossip to hurt someone professionally or socially by spreading false stories about them. It is a kind of temporary relief from the anxiety of dealing with someone they feel is perhaps more successful, popular or happier than they are. Manufacturing malicious gossip is a way of pacifying their jealousy.
As one psychology professor puts it: Vindictive gossip provides a salve for the gossiper's ego. Social psychologists believe people gossip because they want to identify with the person they are gossiping about. One objective of gossiping is to gain status from that person. In some cases gossip provides them with a way of being included in places and with people they may not ordinarily associate with. It's announcing to a third party that you move in the right circles, that you fit in, that you belong and are privy to intimate information about people who have something you don’t have–power, money, success, love affairs, recognition.
“Gossip is about the fantasy life of the gossiper, not the victim,” says one analyst. When one woman accuses another of getting or keeping her job by sleeping with the boss, she may be fantasizing about sleeping with that man herself.
Gossiping also fulfills a need to prove yourself as someone important—someone who has the “inside information.” The more intimate the gossip and the more important the gossipee, the better leverage the gossiper gets on the person he is telling it to. It’s like a game of one-upmanship in order to gain someone's friendship or make a new confidant. People are always more likely to exchange tidbits of trivia with those who gossip to them. It's a way of quickly developing intimacy.
But if you spend most of your time as the victim of gossip rather than the carrier, there are ways to prevent gossip from affecting you. One way to clean up rumors is to control the gossip you are willing to listen to in the first place. You have to know when to stop someone from gossiping to you. There are few people strong enough to seal the lips of someone who is about to tell them a hot one. Although it is difficult, certainly the most efficient way to cut gossip out of your life is simply to actively avoid hearing it.
There are people who may think they are helping to soothe a troubled friend by giving them information that in the end only hurts them. A recently divorced woman, concerned about the toll the split was taking on her and her ex, had a friend who seemed to take great pleasure in assuring her that her ex-husband was doing just fine without her. She told her how happy he was and how well he had adjusted. Although at the time it seemed like harmless banter, the news didn’t make the woman feel any better.
When someone is about to tell you some deep, dark secret—say you don’t want to hear it. That turns the gossiper off completely, since part of the joy of gossiping is relaying juicy stories to the ears of a hungry listener. Most of us, however, are innately too curious and love to hear the latest licentious news about anyone so therefore, that alternative goes against our basic instinct. Inevitably, some office gossip is bound to reach your ears and you can either tune in or tune out. Tuning out is the only true defense against office gossip.
- Never go to office parties where liquor is served—who knows what secrets may slip from your lips when you’re drunk.
- Don't gossip in restaurants frequented by people who work with you, especially if the tables are close together.
- Never have a private fight in a public place—the enemy is all around you.
- If you are having an affair with someone in the office, you might as well arrive at work in the same taxi. The usual five minute interval is a dead giveaway.
- Don't wear the same dress two days in a row. Those titters behind hands will be about you.
- Don't talk in your sleep when you’re not alone.
- If you go out with a writer, be aware that anything you say or do may make good copy for his/her next book or article.
- If you say you’re going to Chicago for business in the middle of the winter, don’t come back with a suntan.
- Don't write revealing initials in your datebook. Make it a little harder to figure out.
- If you want to be gossiped about, ignore all of the above.