We live in Realsville, where we know that office gossip happens, no matter how cool or hip or straight-laced corporate the start-up or office culture. Instead of pretending these whispers don’t occur, instead, understand the most common types of workplace rumors and how to deal with them if the office gossip starts involving your name.
The most common types of gossipers, according to Melody Wilding, a licensed social worker based in New York City, are: the backstabber (a person you confide in who then uses the information against you), the idler (a gossip who spreads rumors just to fill the void of being bored at work) and the complainer (a resentful, threatened or jealous co-worker who can’t stand a peer who received a promotion or bonus). While it can range from pointless and mild to severe and job-jeopardizing, office gossip is not something to completely ignore and cast aside.
“Murmurs can absolutely harm someone’s career and professional trajectory,” says Julie Parker, CEO and founder of Beautiful You Coaching Academy. “It can be so inflammatory and cruel, in instances, that the rumors can damage a professional reputation instantly. If it gets out of hand and is not addressed, office gossip can even lead to a person getting inadvertently fired or forcing them into a position where they feel they need to quit.”
That said, understand that gossip falls into different categories, and in order to know how to handle it, it helps to first get a grip on where it’s coming from (a peer or superior), what’s prompting it and how severe the damage to your professional reputation is and could be, explains Aneil Mishra, Ph.D., Thomas D. Arthur Professor of Leadership at East Carolina University College of Business.
For example, talk around the water cooler involving employee misdeeds or boss misbehavior or rumors about company layoffs, downsizing and restructuring are all negative, says Dr. Dr. Mishra, but talk about impending promotions and impending organizational changes or decisions that can improve the office culture and have significant impact, is a good thing, he explains.
If you suspect you’re the target of malicious gossip, Dr. Mishra suggests tracking down someone who is spreading the rumor and asking:
- How did you learn about this? (Get to the source of the situation)
- What’s your take on this and do you have any questions? (Gauge what side they are on, do they believe what they have been hearing)
- Why do you think whoever told you this said this? (Get at the root of motives, and whether others can see potential motives of the gossip)
While this may seem direct and gutsy, the only way you can use the rumor mill to your advantage is to take a step back and approach the situation calmly and with strength, says Parker. “It’s definitely challenging but also vital to think rationally and strategically about the best response rather than to react and get defensive.”
In general, use the gossip to your advantage by refusing to be a victim by following Parker’s gossip-fighting steps of :
- Standing up for yourself
- Calling out bullies and having them formally dealt with
- Aligning with positive people in the workplace
- Showing strength of character by remaining professional and rising above petty gossip
- If co-workers are threatened by you, and jealous of you, letting this give your work and performance momentum
If you find yourself in a situation, or even starting a new position where you want to troubleshoot, employ these strategies and make inevitable gossip work for you.
1: Expect it to Happen at Some Point
One of the biggest ways to troubleshoot office gossip is to accept that rumors and whispers are an inevitable part of organizational life, says Dr. Mishra, and while it does have negative aspects, and they can harm your career and trajectory, office gossip can also be used to promote positive change in the workplace.
2: Distinguish the Good from the Bad
If gossip is happening to you, the key is to distinguish harmful gossip from useful, says Dr. Mishra. “Harmful gossip is innuendo and based on shaky facts that are designed to disparage someone, often about issues that the target has little control over, such as appearance or actions done to the target instead of done by the target).
3. Base Level of Response on Level of Gossip
The more serious and/or negative the rumors, the more important it is for you to know who started it and how and for you to set straight the distortions and untruths that could harm your professional reputation.
4. Form Alliances
Whenever you go into a new organization or job or project, it’s a wise idea to form alliances with co-workers at levels above and below you, as well as at your peer level. “You need to reach out in all directions, and find common ground to form relationships around, at all levels, because it is often the front line, or administrative support professionals who will hear about rumors and gossip first, and those who can be the most powerful in stopping or redirecting the whispers,” says Dr. Mishra.
5. Face it Head On, Immediately
“Gossip feeds off secrecy and lies,” says Parker, “So you want to get straight to the heart of the matter. It’s about immediately trying to shut it down and letting people know it is not okay, it has to stop and they’ve been caught. If it does not stop, seeking additional managerial help is required.” Though, bringing a manager or h.r. should be a last line of defense, says Dr. Mishra.
6. Stay Strong in Character
There are always at least one or two people who revel in inappropriately talking about others and even outright trying to bring them down, says Parker. “People with jealousy, position and self-worth issues,” she says. “And often, the best defense is strengthening your own character and not stooping to gossip, or even tolerate listening to it.”