We’ve all participated in workplace gossip. The flu Helen called out sick with last week was actually a hangover; Jason in marketing yelled at the intern, and now everyone’s afraid of him. It’s harmless idle chit-chat.
Helen’s embarrassed and angry; people don’t want to work with Jason. But this is part of office life, right?
With toxic work environments fueling the Great Resignation, organizations need to work harder to promote healthy, positive communication among employees and to curb malicious gossip in the workplace.
In this blog, we explain how to handle gossip in the workplace as a manager – when it’s good, when it’s bad, and how to keep gossiping in the workplace from driving out good employees.
Table of contents
- What is workplace gossip?
- The impacts of negative gossip in the workplace
- How to minimize negative gossip and encourage honest, open communication in the workplace: 7 tips and best practices
- Create a more cohesive culture by minimizing negative workplace gossip
- ✅ Use personality and culture tests to create a more inclusive team
What is workplace gossip?
The study that has the most informed research into workplace gossip was a 1991 paper on gossip behaviors among teenagers. In this study, researchers defined gossip as “evaluative talk about a person who is not present.”
The key element here is “evaluative.” Gossip generally contains a judgment or has the purpose of informing someone’s judgment.
For instance, saying to a colleague, “Sandra’s been off with flu this week,” would not qualify as gossip, but, “Sandra’s been out sick a lot lately,” would.
The former is a neutral statement; the latter implies a judgment. What is unspoken is Sandra has been calling out sick too much, perhaps not for good reasons.
Gossip in the workplace might take place in person around the proverbial water cooler or online over social media or instant messaging channels like Slack.
But is gossip always harmful?
Is gossip in the workplace always bad?
Gossip in the workplace is usually framed as petty and spiteful. However, research has shown even negative gossip can come from (somewhat) honest intentions. For instance:
- Socializing: The key function of gossip is to build connections and networks with colleagues.
- Increasing interpersonal influence within teams: Providing gossip can be a way for employees to improve their standing in their team.
- Risk assessment: Employees might turn to the grapevine to find out if they’re on the chopping block during layoffs.
- Validating emotions: Venting to a colleague can help employees assess if their grievance is reasonable.
- Assessing whether they are being treated fairly by their employer: Gossiping about salaries can help employees judge the fairness of their own wages.
- Self-evaluation: Employees might use gossip to evaluate their own performance in comparison.
Researchers also found outright negative uses of gossip. These included employees with low self-esteem using gossip to compare themselves favorably with a colleague, or spreading negative information about a team member who violates group norms.
However, their research proves gossip is not always ill-intentioned. It’s not only the intentions behind gossip that can be positive; the outcomes can be, too.
For individuals, gossiping at work can, depending on the “quality” of the gossip itself, help increase the perception of the gossiper’s trustworthiness. It may even have a similar effect on the person hearing gossip if they cooperate.
It can also have a wider positive impact, particularly when the gossip is positive.
An example is discussing how good someone is to work with or celebrating their promotion (“I’m excited Gavin’s department head now”) compared to malicious gossip (“Gavin must have bribed the boss to get that promotion”).
Positive gossip has been seen to promote innovation in employees and decrease “social loafing” in teams. It can even increase job satisfaction thanks to the social cohesion and sense of trust positive gossip can create.
How to spot workplace gossip
Workplace gossip isn’t hard to identify when you see it in an in-person office. Because it cannot, by definition, take place in the presence of its “target,” it’s likely to be conducted in hushed tones in a small group.
It’s also most likely to happen in informal spaces where employees take breaks, like the communal kitchen or breakroom.
It gets slightly harder to spot in the digital workplace because the places people congregate are out of sight to you unless you’re “in the loop.” Private Slack messages or email threads are common sites for virtual gossip in the workplace.
The impacts of negative gossip in the workplace
We’ve discussed the effect positive gossip can have in teams, but what are the negative effects of gossip?
Here are the five key impacts.
It strains team trust
When it’s common for employees to circulate malicious gossip in the workplace, it erodes the mutual respect necessary between colleagues for teams to function well.
This is true both on behalf of the target of gossip and the gossip-spreaders. The target might (understandably) feel excluded from their teams. Gossip-spreaders might not trust their colleagues, and, by spreading negative gossip, they contribute to the breakdown of trust in the workplace.
It promotes cliques
Gossip of all types promotes social cohesion, but while positive gossip can create a sense of solidarity, negative gossip and secrecy allow cliques and divisiveness to form.
Research has shown cliquey offices contain more workers who gossip, with more time each day dedicated to gossiping:
|Cliquey offices||Non-cliquey offices|
|Gossip during workday||86%||54%|
|Average time spent gossiping||54.8 minutes per week, 5.71 working days per year||23.5 minutes per week, 2.45 working days per year|
|Gossip about executive management/team||57%||33%|
|Gossip about HR||29%||16%|
|Gossip about boss||45%||24%|
|Jealous of coworkers||51%||28%|
It’s a vicious cycle. A time of uncertainty might cause employees to start gossiping at work in an effort to gain a sense of stability. Over time, this creates paranoia and social instability, causing employees to stick to cliques to regain that sense of balance, which causes more workplace gossip.
It lowers morale
Negative office gossip has been observed to cause anxiety and stress, impacting employees’ wellbeing by creating a psychologically unsafe work environment where they feel unable to share what’s going on in their personal lives.
Research shows positive gossip increases employees’ enthusiasm for their work, but malicious gossip in the workplace has a significant negative impact on employee enthusiasm.
This might even have an effect on their physical health if it continues.
It harms reputations
Obviously, the circulation of negative information about employees and managers damages their reputations. This is true whether the employee is the one targeted by gossip or the one spreading it.
In fact, research suggests gossipers and people receiving gossip in the workplace may experience even more negative consequences than the targets of their whispering, particularly in the following areas:
- Engagement and performance
- Relationships with their supervisors
- Organization outcomes and advancement
It affects productivity over time
Many articles on workplace gossip overstate the immediate impact it has on productivity.
While it’s true employees can’t be productively engaged in work when they’re gossiping with each other, gossip often has a balancing effect on team productivity because it acts as a self-monitoring system.
For example, employees might gossip about a team member who is more casual about missing deadlines, thus strengthening the team consensus about deadlines’ importance. If the gossip gets back to its target, this encourages them to adjust their attitude.
However, in environments where negative gossip is running rampant, the cumulative effect of negative consequences impacts your teams’ productivity. The toxic environment created is likely to contribute to employee burnout.
One study found a toxic corporate culture is 10 times more powerful in predicting attrition rates than financial compensation, while another suggested it increased employee burnout by over 100%.
How to minimize negative gossip and encourage honest, open communication in the workplace: 7 tips and best practices
We’ve seen the great things positive gossip can bring to your business. We’ve also seen the damage negative gossip can do.
It’s impossible to have a completely gossip-free workplace, so how can you address malicious gossip in the workplace and promote healthier communication?
Here are seven best practices for handling gossip in the workplace.
How to minimize negative gossip: Summary table
Is workplace gossip already spreading like wildfire? Need to know how to address gossip in the workplace, fast? Here’s a quick summary of our tips.
|Best practice for minimizing malicious gossip in the workplace||Example action|
|Define “gossip”||Include a list of questions for employees to ask to identify gossip|
|Train leaders on how to deal with negative gossip||Encourage leaders to model compassion and set boundaries around gossip|
|Hire for culture add, not culture fit||Use a Culture Add test to identify candidates who add to your workplace culture without creating cliques|
|Create alternative routes for teams to raise issues||Encourage managers in healthy teams to use an open-door company policy|
|Tackle digital gossip||Crack down on cliques between remote teams by planning all-company retreats|
|Offer support groups for gossip||Encourage managers to support one another as they deal with gossip|
|Write this all into a clear and accessible gossip in the workplace policy||Connect your gossip in the workplace policy back to your company values|
1. Define “gossip”
The first step to minimizing negative gossip in the workplace is to establish a clear, easy-to-understand definition of what you want to avoid. Make this available to your employees in your employee handbook.
The key is to make the definition easy to apply to day-to-day occurrences. There’s no point in providing a sharp definition if your employees struggle to understand its technical language or map it onto their own behavior.
Start simple by simply saying, “Negative gossip is the act of passing critical judgment on another employee’s character or performance when they’re not present.”
You might choose to follow this up with a series of questions for employees to ask themselves to decide if the conversation constituted negative workplace gossip. For example:
- Is the subject of your conversation present?
- Are your statements about them neutral or loaded?
- Is there a factual basis for what you’re saying?
- Would you be comfortable with your manager overhearing this conversation?
These can easily be used by employees to understand their own and others’ behavior and limit malicious gossip in the workplace.
2. Train leaders on how to deal with negative gossip
Once you’ve nailed down your definition, it’s time to get people on board with curbing workplace gossip, starting with your leaders.
Explain to managers and executives why gossip can be harmful and get them to champion openness, empathy, and honesty across the organization.
The impact of this can be huge. Studies have shown when leaders showed compassion, it reduced the likelihood organizational politics produced negative workplace gossip.
You should train and encourage leaders to be role models for the whole organization when it comes to setting boundaries around workplace gossip and promoting positive gossip among employees.
For instance, you never want managers to discuss employees with other employees in a negative way.
Of course, this can be challenging when the gossip concerns the leader themselves – for instance, direct reports spreading negative gossip because they are disgruntled with their managers.
However, the Harvard Business Review recommends leaders follow a few simple steps, including confronting the source of the gossip directly about their grievances.
When gossip has caused rifts between team members, make sure your HR team and key leaders are versed in nonviolent communication to resolve issues.
3. Hire for culture add, not culture fit
Broadly speaking, there’s not much you can do at the hiring stage to prevent gossip in the workplace. Being a gossip is not an innate personality trait – or one worth testing every potential hire for.
You might test candidates for integrity, but much of the incentive to gossip comes from within your organization, including a cliquey culture or uncertainty about job security.
In most cases, it’s impossible to tell before hiring whether someone will contribute to workplace gossip.
However, there are some hiring practices to indirectly reduce gossip. One of these is to throw out hiring for the traditional concept of “culture fit.”
Tactics like the “beer test” – subjectively judging each candidate based on whether you would want to get a beer with them – promote cliques and groupthink by selecting hires who reproduce your existing team’s superficial characteristics.
Replacing this concept with the much more valuable “culture add” instead unites employees around the organization’s mission and values, while giving them the freedom to think and work differently.
The diversity of thought this creates is a harder environment for negative gossip to thrive in because it reduces cliques and creates more opportunities to break the cycle of workplace gossip.
4. Create alternative routes for teams to raise issues
Negative gossip is frequently used to air grievances employees don’t see another route for resolving, and one reason for this is employees not having a range of options to resolve disputes.
Organizations are more likely to use official complaint procedures to resolve issues than any other method, including:
- Internal mediation
- Training line managers to handle difficult conversations
- External mediation
This can deter individuals from reporting issues because they might feel they have to wait for a situation to be “severe enough.”
Some disputes may never escalate to this level, instead entrenching long-term discontent in your team and leading to workplace gossip.
By offering less extreme routes for employees to air their complaints, you lower the barrier for them to speak up. It also promotes accountability among your leaders.
One of the most popular routes for this is creating an open-door policy among managers. This encourages employees to open up to their leaders proactively about matters big and small.
However, open-door policies require an established good relationship between leaders and their teams. To feel comfortable being open about their issues, employees can’t feel they are at risk of retribution. Perhaps even more importantly, they need to feel heard.
More than a quarter of employees say they withhold feedback about routine problems or opportunities for improvement because they fear it would be a waste of their time, rather than because they fear punishment for their views.
An open-door policy might not be the solution if you’re trying to heal an existing culture of gossip in the workplace.
Instead, consider a combination of measures, starting with the leadership overhaul we’ve described above.
With this in place, you could then incentivize employees to talk to managers about the issues they notice with their colleagues’ conduct by including ethical evaluations in annual reviews. This was the most common incentive worldwide to promote ethics reporting in 2018.
Finally, as an ongoing housekeeping measure, you might distribute anonymous surveys at fixed points throughout the year.
These could include general questions about team performance and management improvement, or target specific issues like reducing malicious gossip in the workplace.
5. Tackle digital gossip
As we’ve discussed, digital gossip is more easily hidden and potentially more rampant than in-person gossip. It’s an easy way for employees to develop camaraderie across the digital divide.
However, it’s much harder to tackle when it turns bad, particularly without resorting to surveillance, which obliterates employee trust.
The best way to proceed here is to offer employees, particularly on remote teams, alternative ways to bond with each other. For instance, you can organize remote team-building events.
It’s also worth being mindful of the impact of workplace gossip not only on individual teams but your whole workforce.
Research has shown the widespread adoption of remote working has led to communication breakdowns between teams, with employees being unlikely to develop strong bonds with colleagues they don’t work with directly.
This promotes a culture of virtual workplace gossip because of team cliques. However, it’s easily tackled by creating opportunities for employees from across your organization to mix and bond with each other.
You might consider organizing an all-company event or even a retreat to help employees put faces to the names they see on screen.
For example, as a fully-remote company, TestGorilla organizes yearly retreats for all our employees to socialize and bond in exciting locations around the world.
6. Offer support groups for dealing with gossip
If your organization has suffered from malicious gossip in the workplace in the past, consider offering support groups for those affected.
This can help employees who have felt excluded by negative workplace gossip, and it can even be a good ongoing practice for managers, for whom gossip is harder to avoid.
After all, there will always be some measure of awkwardness and perhaps even resentment toward managers, even in the best workplace. That’s the nature of being responsible for holding your team accountable.
But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it should be lonely. Helping managers form their own supportive connections with one another can alleviate the stress of negative gossip and support them as they develop tactics for dealing with it.
7. Write this all into a clear and accessible gossip in the workplace policy
Finally, summarize your processes and guidance for dealing with workplace gossip into a gossip in the workplace policy accessible whenever employees need it. It should include:
- Your definition of negative gossip
- Clear guidance of what is permissible, or what counts as “positive gossip”
- Guidance for how employees can shut down negative gossip
- Alternative channels for reporting grievances to management
- The stipulation that by joining your workforce, your employee is agreeing to abide by these rules
- The connection between these policies and your core values
This can help create a more cohesive culture because all employees are on the same page about communicating with one another.
Make sure everything you include in your gossip in the workplace policy is legal. For example, you cannot threaten disciplinary action to keep employees from discussing topics like wages, as in most countries, this is central to their workers’ rights.
Create a more cohesive culture by minimizing negative workplace gossip
Clearly, gossip in the workplace isn’t always a bad thing. It’s human nature for people to bond through gossip.
The challenge is keeping the good parts of workplace gossip while eliminating malicious gossip in the workplace, which can do long-lasting damage to your company culture.
We’ve shown you how to stop gossiping at work by training leaders and promoting a positive remote work culture. Now, it’s over to you.
If you’re ready to remedy the negative impacts of workplace gossip in your organization, get inspired with our blog on examples of cultural change in action
Or if you’re hiring for a new role and want to get started, use our Culture Add test to create a more diverse team.
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