Gossipmongers: Fight Back Against Them
By Chelse Benham
“Whoever gossips to you will gossip about you.” – Spanish Proverb
“Gossip is idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of
others.” – Random House College Dictionary. It is a favorite past time for many
people. Although it can provide information about company changes and help
identify workplace dynamics, much of gossip is used to serve the gossiper’s
personal agenda. That agenda may be aimed at targeting someone who may be
viewed as a threat or different from the rumormonger.
“Some gossip can be informative and spread through what are known as
‘networks’ and there may be truth in the gossip,” said Dr. Rafael Balderrama,
lecturer of sociology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at The
University of Texas-Pan American. “However, the problem with gossip is that the
information is often distorted in the retelling of it. For a person to believe in the
information being told to him depends on how much they trust and believe the
source as credible and reliable. Consider their motivations for saying what they
J. Talbott, a labor attorney, consultant and founder of laborrelations.org writes in
his article, “Tips on Handling Office Gossip,” that “gossip is a universal human
behavior that we all engage in and which serves a functional purpose for
employees and organizations. Many people spend more time with their work
colleagues than with their own families and that idle gossip sometimes helps to
cement the bonds of collegiality.” However, Talbott warns negative gossip can be
incredibly destructive and even lead to lawsuits. He suggests the following when
handling workplace gossip:
1. Know that malicious or excessive gossip disrupts production, lowers morale
and often targets individual employees. In fact, gossip can cross the line into
harassment or mobbing behaviors, and can become a health and safety or
human rights issue.
2. Understand that gossip can open employers up to liability. Employees who
are targets of office gossip may sue, claiming constructive dismissal for not being
adequately protected or they may launch human rights complaints if their race,
gender, religion or another immutable personal characteristic has made them the
target of gossip.
3. Fill the void by communicating. Managers must set aside time to regularly
deal with employees as a group or one-on-one to stop the gossip mill spinning.
4. Inform employees that malicious gossip is not tolerated. For some employers
this may mean going as far as introducing a policy, but for others it may suffice to
have management pass on this expectation through meetings, counseling or
during annual reviews. Employees who are spreading malicious gossip should be
warned that their behavior is not acceptable and may ultimately lead to
5. Build a culture that is supportive and cooperative. Where mutual respect is
modeled by managers and rewarded by promotions and commendations an
organization is less likely to have to cope with the severity of malicious gossip.
6. Deal with rumors immediately. Create sessions with employees to clear the
air. The more senior the management representative at these meetings, the
more likely his or her pronouncements will squelch false or malicious rumors.
7. Remind employees that their e-mail communications are not private and may
be recorded even after the delete button has been hit. This is standard practice
now in many computer use policies, but it also reinforces the expectation that e-
mail is not a medium in which to gossip about fellow employees.
8. Keep employees busy with meaningful work. Idle hands are the devil’s
R.J. Ignelzi in his article, “Beware of Gossip That Knows No Bounds” in the April
6, 2003 edition of San Diego Union Tribune, reported research supporting the
positive nature of gossip. A study at the Research Centre for Economic Learning
and Social Evolution at University College London says tongue wagging helps
people bond and creates strong social networks.
Dr. Phillip Gay, sociology professor at San Diego State University, said in the
article, "If gossip is not pernicious, it serves a valuable function. People get to
know each other through gossip. They can express their values and opinions.
Gossip is a way of introducing yourself to other people."
However, there is a real limit to good gossip and identifying the line between
“good vs. bad” gossip can be determined. If you participate in gossip refer to the
following guidelines, from the article, to refrain from bad gossip. They are:
• Don't spread gossip that you know to be false.
• If you can't verify a rumor and/or you know it's hurtful, don't pass it along.
• It's unethical to spread negative gossip to intentionally damage someone.
• While it's tempting to exaggerate or embellish the tale you're passing
along, try not to make up details or ignore important ones.
• Gossip should never be used to determine someone's character or human
worth. Draw conclusions of others from your own interactions with them.
• Think through the implications of your gossip before you let it spread.
• Don't talk about someone's illness or health.
• Gossiping about someone's sexual orientation is unacceptable.
• If unsure whether a piece of gossip is appropriate to pass on, ask yourself
if you could say it to the person it's about.
• If you think someone is not aware they're the target of gossip, let them
• If you're a victim of gossip, confront it directly and immediately.
If you are an employee who’s the target of gossip and “bad politics” you can fight
back. According to Dr. Robert F. Sarmiento, licensed psychologist and founder of
the Career Testing Center Web site, there are specific strategies you can use. A
• Keep it professional at all times.
• Take your complaint to your supervisor.
• Don’t make enemies. Don’t burn bridges.
• Don’t make others look bad and don’t criticize others.
• Stay focused on your task. Take on challenges, serve on committees and
• Help others get what they want.
• Establish positive affiliations with as many people as possible by finding
common ground with others.
• Create win/win solutions.
• Cultivate a professional, presentable and positive image. Be pleasant,
laugh and smile.
• Seek friendships outside the office.
• Be assertive and tough when required.
• Don’t oversell yourself. Be natural.
• Do what you say you are going to do.
• Selectively self-disclose and don’t discuss personal problems.
• Don’t assume anything will stay secret.
Remembering that nothing is really a secret is the most important rule of them all.
Talk through the “grapevine,” better known as gossip, surfaces from the lack of
private conversations staying private. Gossip can be used to circulate mistruths,
usurp projects and destroy office morale by maligning and ostracizing people.
According to Chuck Martin, syndicated columnist, CEO of Net Future Institute
Research and author of “Managing for the Short Term,” he identifies how gossip
is cultivated in the workplace at his Web site www.netfutureinstitute.com
According to Martin, negative or bad gossip is provoked by malcontents, petty
jealousies, insecure and negative people unhappy with their own careers who
make themselves feel better by criticizing others and their work environments.
Martin cautions that negative gossip that targets and seeks to hurt someone is
the most dangerous type of gossip.
He points out that, among those who gossip, they justify spreading gossip by
cloaking it as “important information” needed to be shared with co-conspirators to
stay informed of political milieu. But, by its own definition, gossip is often skewed
in the retelling to reflect the gossiper’s own perspective. It is embellished and
filled with emotion that can heighten innocent miscommunications and inflame
situations into emotional imbroglios.
According to Martin, gossip is by far the most common social weapon. Ironically,
he contends, that even people who engage in gossip (perhaps out of habit) know
it’s a bad thing. Although some types of gossip may help a person's reputation,
the overwhelming majority of the "shock talk" people indulge in is harmful and
mean spirited. To add to the sinister nature of this tactic, it is done behind the
target's back. Martin provides some additional advice for handling gossip if you
are the target of it. Here are some helpful tips:
• “Let your actions speak louder than the words spoken about you.” Work
hard and avoid participating in gossip.
• Create relationships with many different people. The best way to combat
negative attacks is to rise above. Carry-on and deal with people positively.
Your goal is to mitigate damages by being the best person you can be.
• Don’t associate with people who gossip. Ignore being drawn into gossip.
• Remember that no matter what you say or do some people are going to
believe the rumors, people are going to spread the rumors and rumors will
continue to be used as a social weapon to hurt others.
• Don't confront the person who spreads the gossip about you in a public
place or with an angry tone in your voice. Causing a scene or going on the
offensive will only make them feel they are justified in spreading venom. If
you do want to confront the rumormonger, wait until you are calm and the
initial shock has passed.
• Rather than freaking out and running around trying to set the record
straight, play it cool! When it gets back to you laugh lightly and say
something like, “Is THAT what's going around about me? I wonder why
somebody would go to so much trouble to spread a lie?” This does two
things; it shows others that you have nothing to hide because you are not
acting defensively and it puts the burden of reliability back on the gossip
spreader by making others wonder if there is a hidden agenda.
• Spread the gossip yourself, "Have you heard what so-and-so is saying
about me? What a joke!" and do it with a smile. Always sound calm and
confused, never bitter and resentful.
• Calm is key! Always be calm. If you freak out in protest it looks like you
have something to hide. Even if you do have something to hide, playing it
cool is always best.
• Don't retaliate with your own gossip.
The last point is an important one. As hurtful as it may be to find yourself the
target of gossip don’t turn around and retaliate by spreading gossip of your own.
That makes you a hypocrite and doesn’t solve the problem. This is not one of
those situations where “fighting fire with fire” will do anything more than burn you.
”I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.” –
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), Civil Rights/Human Rights Activist and