Dealing with workplace gossip

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For most of us, the idea of "workplace violence" conjures up images of physical harm. But there is another form of workplace violence that is just as dangerous and insidious - and that is gossip in the workplace.

Gossip is any language that would cause another harm, pain, or confusion that is used outside the presence of another for whom it is intended.

As a facilitator, trainer and coach, I've been in numerous workplace situations where gossip was the norm. Curiously enough, in these same organizations, most folks I spoke to would say that gossip was something they disapproved of.

Even after formal meetings to discuss the "gossip issue", after attending sensitivity workshops designed to reduce and eliminate pernicious gossip, after mandating "there be no more gossip" and after pledging to have more honest, open and direct communication (whereby folks verbalized a "commitment" to speak directly to a colleague in order to eliminate gossip), many of these same individuals still consciously continued to engage in the practice of gossip.

Why?

Because gossip is a form of attack which often arises from an individual's conscious or unconscious fears. For some people, a commitment "not to gossip" is easily diluted by their fears, anxieties and concerns about what their life might be like if they stopped gossiping: "Who would I be then?" What would I do?" "How would I be one of the guys…?" "Would I have to eat lunch alone?" "Would I lose all my friends?"

Some broader definitions of gossip not only relate to negative remarks, but even extend to positive or neutral remarks that are focused on making conversation that is centered on the activities or behaviors of others, again, outside the presence of that person.

Stopping the practice of talking about others can be a big challenge for many people because they're simply not able to be authentic in life. As a result, many revert to gossiping as a self-defense mechanism, using it as a self-protection device so they never have to be vulnerable, or disclose information about their feelings or emotions, or open up.

In other words, these folks use gossip as a strategy for protecting against revealing their real selves. They have walked around for so long wearing masks and assuming false identities that opening up and revealing who they really, really are is frightening and threatening.

So an inner desire to be authentic and sincere and not gossip has to emerge from a person's deep sense of integrity, as well as from a conscious, heart-felt desire to be harmless in the context of their life and in their interactions with others.

Without this profound inner commitment to harmlessness, an injunction to "stop gossiping" can simply trigger ego-based behaviours. Thus individuals continue to find excuses (since there are never "reasons") to gossip.

In addition, there are those folks who want or need to be liked and accepted and who want or need others to feel comfortable with them. So they too continue to engage in gossip when it is going on around them because they don't want to feel like the odd one out.

Since gossip is a fear-based behaviour, the need for self-protection often proves to be greater than any apparent commitment not to engage in it. This self-protection brings with it a kind of pseudo-safety and false sense of well-being that might otherwise be in jeopardy; so people continue to gossip so that they can keep the focus on someone else, rather than themselves.

For others, the issue is not so much that they're consciously being self-protective; it's when they DON'T KNOW they are being self-protective that is critical.

KEY QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
  • Why am I engaging in gossiping or supporting others who do so?
  • What does gossiping get me?
  • Is there another way to get this same result without harming another?
  • Does gossiping align with my personal and my organization's espoused values around respecting and honoring people?
  • Would I repeat this gossip directly to the person it's about?
  • Would I want to be quoted on TV or in the papers or in the company newsletter?
  • Would I encourage my children to engage in the behavior of gossip?
  • Would I engage in it if it were about a relative or personal friend?
  • Am I expressing my authenticity, sincerity, and integrity when I gossip?
  • Does gossiping match my commitments to my self and others?
  • Do I feel ethical when I'm gossiping?
Thus many people are unable to take responsibility for their behavior. As a result, they begin to look outside themselves (blame, find fault, complain, whine...) when they fail to take responsibility for themselves, since they don't have the self-awareness to go inside to explore what's up. So, they gossip and look to find some reason for doing so.

The upshot of all this is that commitments not to gossip often dissipate rather quickly in the real world.

Even if someone does appear to be upholding the "no-gossip rule" outwardly, they might still be gossiping in their thoughts, sending out hostile signals to others and just being "quiet" about it. And this covert behavior can be even more dangerous and insidious.

Unless we truly explore our inner behavior (mental models, self-images, ego constructs, super-ego judgments, attendant beliefs, feelings and emotions), we cannot be free from both the urge and the habit of gossip.

We can stop gossiping in the workplace only when a real inner desire to so emerges from a deep sense of integrity and authenticity - and that means taking conscious steps to be harmless in the context of our life and in our interactions with others.

Gossip in the workplace is a form of violence. To be free from inflicting this violence on others we need to explore and heal the split between our outer selves and inner selves. Only then can we live honest, sincere and responsible lives, both within the workplace and outside it.

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OLDER COMMENTS

while we work on importing them to the new system!

Good to see you here, Peter.

The notion of gossip as violence may seem severe to some, but that doesn't mean it any less true.

One's career rests on reputation and integrity. When that is impugned through malicious talk which is allowed to continue unabated, an entire culture of deceit and half-truths will emerge. The ultimate consequence may be the downfall of the organization itself.

Steve Roesler New Jersey, USA

I like the way you talk about both inner and outer influences on gossip.

Many times though, there is an absolutely insidious reason for gossip to continue; it's reinforced by management. Much like the 'teacher's pet' at school, certain gossips make it their role to 'give feedback' on fellow employees.

All too often management rewards this behavior and acts on it, rather than encouraging folks to speak directly to their fellow workers.

King Kull

Thank you for dissecting what is gossip. I just left a business where gossip was the norm and where it was heavily encouraged by the owner of the business itself. I am not committed to gossip or the hurt that accompanies it, yet definitely participated in my share of it and for that I am ashamed. I have printed out your article and am going to refer to it the remind me of what I am, and am not, committed to. Thank you for taking your time to post this.

Kristin

Gossip at work is largely a woman thing, as they often use it to attack individuals indirectly. Insecure men, although less common, too can be gossips. I find the working classes, especially those less educated, to be the worst culprits.

Elvis

Thank you, for this enlightening article as gossip in the work place has gotten me fired from a few jobs. The most poignant issue you bring forward is the need for the gossiper to "heal their Spirit", and to some how take responsibility for their own actions or at the very least, learn how to become introspective of themselves. Not everyone feels the inate need to "fit-in" but, these BUT-INski's can make the simple act and deisre to go to work and do a good day's work absolutely hell.

There is one item I would like to contrast with Elvis's comments: "Men are just as bad with gossiping as women." Men tend to go out of their way to aggressively harass the person: slander/liable, harassing phone calls, physical violence, "setting-up" scenarios to terminate another person (male or female). How might I know? First hand knowledge of working in male-dominated fields for many, many years & their are similarities in the sexes as well as definite differences.

kc Northeast

I get the impression that gossips think they are "strong," and that they are preying upon people who are "weak" and deserve to be a target of this behavior. I am often a target of this behavior, but I never respond in kind; they are not as interesting to me as my life is. However, I do think that they are the ones who are weak. I could never tolerate having on my conscience the ugly things I have heard others say, about me and about other people.

I do not participate in gossipping, and I do not associate with those who do.

Kristine Minnesota

I think gossip really ruins work relationships.. well, and relationships in general. It's one thing to have an opinion on something, but there's an appropriate time and place to voice that. Unfortunately, not everyone is a firm believer that we shouldn't judge others, as we ourselves are not perfect. I try my best to live by this to keep me from gossiping. Some people seem to perceive that their just voicing their opinion but don't realize that their making a donkey out of themselves and making other people uncomfortable. It's really not necessary.

Teresa

I read a Stephen Covey quote that adds some nice value to this office gossip discussion. This is just a paraphrase...

The best way to build trust with someone present is to talk up about someone not present. This is a passive way of telling the person present that you will do the same for them when they aren't around.

Rhett Laubach

I just read this article because I have been targeted as the center of gossip. My feelings have been hurt and I am really uncomfortable going to work everyday. After reading this, I have a better understanding of why people are gossiping. I cannot say that I have not gossiped, however it was my defense from the hurt. I know now that I do not need to defend myself.

I like the fact that this article gives ideas on how to focus on the positive attributes of a person that gossips. I am going to try this technique even though I am not sure it will work.

Speaking of employers, mine is male and all of us employees are female. Sometimes, I think my employer feeds on the gossip and plays each of us against each other. It is hard to prove, but I am almost certain.

NPT Texas

My idea of gossip in the workplace is something that should not be done. People who think that talking about other people and the way they live their lives is not very attractive. People hardly know what happens in that ones life, and to sit there and be like, "Oh you would not believe what i heard about ........" and so on so forth. Now i have gossiped before, not going to lie about that one, but i started realizing that the more i did it, the more it was put bac on me, i was blamed for spreading the rumor and got in trouble for it all the time. Gossip can hurt physically, mentaly, and emotionly hurt someone and if you think about it..... would you want to be in that persons shoes, the one your talking about, think about it!

BUBBLES, THS Cheyenne,WY

I left my previous job in a multinational because I was being constantly gossiped about, discriminated, bullied and haressed. I was unemployed for 1 year because I couldnt take it anymore. Now Im working again in a small office and people from other offices in the same building are already gossiping about me. They dont know me at all, they never talked to me and they just judge me on my appearance. They have lunch together and they talk loud, making remarks about me and the fact that Im a foreigner. Why do people do this to me wherever I go? Im friendly, communicative, open and sensitive. Why do I have this dark cloud on top of my head? Even my own neighbours gossip openly about me and dont talk to me at all. I never talked to them and they also dont know me. I feel haunted and feel drained from my vital energy with the idea of being a victim of gossipers. Im already afraid of going to work, of making friends, of talking to strangers. Im getting gradually more isolated and this is not me. Do I have a spel on top of me? When I tell my husband about these behaviors at work he doesnt believe me and thinks its my fault because Im reserved, shy and quie. What am I suppose to be? A gossiper as well? How should I behave? Im a strong person, but right now Im not sure anymore about how I should behave, act or be. I need some help.

Violet Amsterdam, Holland

I work in an environment where everyone is jealous of me. My looks, my accomplishments, my children's accomplishments, my assets and my huge dysfunctional family. I am the boss. My employees think I am stupid. I know very well who my gossip machines are, most supervisor's do. Let me tell you, when you have bad reviews year after year and your raises are less than 20 cents on the hour, you know your supervisor has figured you out as one of the gossip machines. Gossip machines never make it anywhere to the top, no matter how smart you are, if you are one of the gossip mongers the next place you are going is out the door. Workplace gossip machines are emotionally immature individuals, these are the folks who never grow up. They have not accepted responsibility for themselves, they do not have a very productive life and they are actually emotional manipulators. These folks are psychos, this is a mental illness. They are just too stupid to admit it. Stupid is as stupid does. After talking with a private detective that has worked with many a criminal, he stated that all folks who have to resort to gossip is usually jealous of you, they are a lower class of people, they gossip to try to make themselves look good with others. He asked me to pick, who I thought in my charge was of a lower class. I told him and he stated those are your gossip machines. After further investigation, he was right. Now pick out all those low class people in your office and I can assure you they are your gossip machines. The best advice to anyone hiring, research your applicants, do background checks, hire high class folks. These are folks who feel good about themselves and project it to the world.

Belinda

After reading this article, I must say that I learned a bit about the inner workings of the gossiper. I have become the victim of in the work place and simply because I chose not to indulge in certain activities of the 'alpha' clique in the office. I realize that these people are weak and defame others so that they can feel/look good about themselves.What amazed me most is the extent to which they will go to create juicy tidbits to fit in with a clique!There is the case of one individual going to the group with lies about what I said, when infact I do not even talk to the individual except on a business level. Another aspect of the scenario was the way in which the calumny spread and entangled everyone in it.I personally do not interact with this group because I realize that they all have one common denominator...........unhappy lives.

Martin

When I was a bit younger, I used to engage in a lot of office gossip, and it would tend to come back to me and bite me in the butt. I am now in my 40's and office gossip really pisses me off. This is a great article and gives one a lot of thought....

Melanie Arizona

Melanie, it's curious how so often our perspective changes as we reach different stages (age) and states (consciousness) in life.

Peter Vajda Atlanta, GA

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