November 9, 2009

On The Job ... Dealing with workplace gossip

Last week, the Toronto Star had an interesting article on a recent academic report on workplace gossip. In the study cited, researchers looked at the trail of gossip during formal business meetings and how gossip has become a tool for disempowered employees.

I decided to mention the article as it ties in with this week's topic - dealing with workplace gossip.

For most students just starting out in their career, workplace gossip is one element of workplace politics that is often misunderstood and misused. And since it has been part of the workplace since the dawn of time, it's not going away. Thus, it's worth learning how to deal with it - and how to use it to your advantage if need be.

Let's start from the basics. If you've ever worked or volunteered, you've most likely heard a variation of the following conversation:


"Did you hear that Sarah was given 3 extra shifts this week?"


"No! Since when?"


"Since the schedule went up. I heard it's because the managers like her more?"


"Yeah, but not John. Did you hear about how she argued with him last week in front of a customer?"


"No! What happened?"


Essentially, the above conversation constitutes workplace gossip. And it's a very common occurrence in workplaces across the world - including stores and restaurants, places of employment that students tend to gravitate towards.

Upon investigating the issue of workplace gossip, I came across an interesting article in About.com's Careers Guide. In it, the author offered three tips that employees can use when confronted with workplace gossip. They're worth mentioning, but I'll add two additional ones that I think are important too.

1. Take what you hear for what it's worth

According to About.com, before acting on hearsay, try and confirm if it is true as often, gossip is false. Plus, the "telephone effect" whereby messages are slightly changed each time they are relayed can also lead to false information.

In my opinion, this is a tip worth implementing at work. Not only does workplace gossip lead to misinformation, but it can also be tiring trying to keep up-to-date with the latest happenings. And besides, the last thing you want to be known for is being the in-office (or store or restaurant) gossip hound.

2. Contribute at your own risk

In the About.com article, the author says that employees should be careful about what they say, even to trusted coworkers, as not everyone is good at keeping a secret.

I definitely agree with this tip - and use it often myself. Contributing to workplace gossip is hazardous and no matter how much you think you know someone, they could in turn take your gossip and spread it around. If you hear or know of something secretive, don't divulge - trust me, it will save you lots of hassle and aggravation later!

3. Use the grapevine to your advantage

The last tip in the About.com article deals with using workplace gossip to your advantage. The author says that if you have information you want to share, such as a recent success or something that someone did that was bothersome, you can tell it to someone you know loves to gossip.

I think this is a much more interesting - and hotly contested - tip for employees. While I see the merits of using gossip to your advantage, I personally believe in the direct approach as it offers better results and I don't have to worry about my message getting lost via the above-mentioned "telephone effect".

In addition to the 3 above tips, I also have my own two recommendations.

4. Acknowledge that it will happen.

Regardless of the industry you work in, workplace gossip will happen. You cannot control if it happens - unless you're a manager under some grand disillusion that you can actually stop it because in my experience, trying to stop it only makes it worse and encourages less obvious forms of workplace gossip.

Plus, you don't need the proverbial water cooler to engage in gossip anymore - more and more of it is exchanged online via e-mail, instant messaging, and social networking websites. And remember that just because the gossip takes place outside of work doesn't mean you cannot be punished. In fact, one of my ex-colleagues was recently fired after gossiping about her workplace online - so be careful!

5. Consider the other side

Often, workplace gossip involves talking about "someone else" - your boss, a colleague, a client, etc. However, consider how the gossip impacts the other side, because sometimes you yourself will be the target of the gossip and how would you feel knowing that people are exchanging potentially false information about you. I suspect that 99.9% of people wouldn't like it, so why subject someone to something you yourself wouldn't want?

In sum, I always tell my clients to be wary of workplace gossip. It's a dangerous drug that can often intoxicate you with the wrong information - and that can lead to a host of problems.

My best piece of advice - just ignore it completely. Go in, do your job well, and leave the gossip to those that care and think it's worthwhile.

Sooner or later they'll realize that exchanging gossip at the water cooler just isn't the thing to do!

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