Workplace Gossip:  Is it Harmful or Helpful? It all Depends

By Jean Marie Johnson

Ah, the power of the words we speak and those we spread...  As service industry professionals, we uphold a high standard for the conversations we have with customers. But we all know that the culture of our service center is so much more than that. And so it is a good idea to step back from time to time to consider how our words—all of them—may be helping or hindering:

  • the impressions we make
  • the relationships we create
  • the culture we share in the workplace
As we speak with employees in organizations across the country, we often hear "the way that we talk to customers is one thing, but what goes on out there on the floor, or in the break room is a whole other story!" What they are referring to is The G Word: GOSSIP. And they are not alone. A workplace study conducted by Harris Interactive asked more than 1,500 employed adults to name their biggest pet peeves about their jobs. It turns out that workplace gossip was at the top of the list, cited No. 1 by 60% of respondents.

So here's the question:  Is gossip eating away at your MAGIC culture, or, could it actually serve a purpose?

Gossip: A Two-Faced Word

The answer is: it all depends. We did some looking around and found that many organizations are considering the perils and—this may come as a surprise to you—even a few benefits of gossip. It turns out that this prevalent workplace phenomenon may have two sides…a little like the good sister and the evil twin. But instead of getting carried away with analogies, let's attempt to define what is generally meant  by 'gossip.' While formal definitions vary, two descriptions that we came across frequently include:

  • idle, often sensational and groundless talk about others
  • any language that would cause another harm, pain, or confusion that is used outside the presence of another for whom it is intended.
Gossip is about others and is spoken when they are not around. Researcher Peter Vajda characterizes gossip as a form of attack that empowers one person while disempowering another. As such, it often takes the form of pure speculation, as in "I think he’s on disciplinary action." Or mere hearsay: "Well, what I heard is that she has a restraining order out on her live-in-partner." Clearly, statements such as these aren’t pretty. And they have a way of coursing through the office grapevine faster than a speeding bullet.

First Consider the Evil Twin

In a time of heightened sensitivity to bullying in all forms, workplace researchers are taking a fresh look at this phenomenon.  Currently, gossip, in its worst manifestations, has been likened to a form of workplace violence.  In response, some organizations have gone so far as to craft formal policies against gossip. Talking about gossip as a force to be reckoned with and instituting policies against it, are a good start. But, they don’t get at the root issue. The real question to ask is: Why do people gossip? Why do they engage in idle, sensational and groundless talk about the people they work with?

Gossip is Power

Researchers Nancy B. Kurkland and Lisa Hope Pelled have a theory. They contend that gossip is all about power. For example:

  • If someone shares negative information with you about another person, you are likely to believe that they will likewise spread negative talk about you. This belief increases the gossiper's coercive power.
  • If someone shares positive information with you about another person, you  might believe that the gossiper will also spread positive information about you. This belief increases the gossiper's reward power.
  • If someone seems to have specific knowledge about the organization or about others in the workplace, this increases their expert power.

And then there is something they call referent power. If coworkers perceive that they are now a part of the 'in circle' because information has been shared with them, the gossiper is likely to gain in power and reputation.

The Boomerang Effect

At the same time, referent power can backfire. Gossip that is catty, mean-spirited and harmful has a definite boomerang effect. The purveyors of this kind of gossip don't have egg on their faces. No, it’s a lot more serious than that. This type of gossip contributes to a negative reputation, one that makes people cautious of them, and one that may limit their career options as well.

The Root of the Matter

So if gossip is all about power, why do people who gossip seek out this type of power? Researchers contend that underneath it all, low self-esteem and a desire to 'fit in' may be at the root of why a coworker resorts to gossip. Peter G. Vajda suggests that a person who gossips may do so because "they just can't be authentic in life." Gossiping may act as a defense mechanism which puts the focus on other people so that 'the gossiper' avoids being vulnerable, or disclosing their own feelings and emotions. In other words, they don't reveal who they are. Wearing a mask that focuses on other people is easier than revealing themselves, which would be frightening and threatening.

Kick the Habit: Coach Yourself Out of Negative/Destructive/Harmful Gossiping

With a genuine commitment to breaking the gossip habit, self-coaching can help, even if there is a self esteem issue at play. Vajda has developed a number of reflective questions to support a shift in both mindset and behavior:

  • Why am I engaging in gossiping or supporting others who do so?
  • What does gossiping get me?
  • Does gossiping align with my personal and my organization's 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, in the papers or in the company newsletter?
  • 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?
  • Do I feel ethical when I'm gossiping?

The Good Sister: The Flip Side of Gossip

For all of its real hazards and potential harm, some researchers are talking about what we already intuitively know:  what goes by the name of 'gossip' isn't all bad. Consider an employee alerting, helping, building, informing and being there. Let’s take a closer look at how gossip in these forms can serve a number of purposes in the workplace:

  • Alerting a fellow employee to a potential opening ("Hey, I heard that Jose is taking that Supervisor position he interviewed for. You may want to put your name in for his job.")
  • Helping a new employee learn social information about other individuals in the organization ("Carl over in Payroll belongs to the softball team. I hear he is really out to win this season; you may want to connect with him.")
  • Building social networks of individuals by bonding co-workers together ("Once a month Jen over in Billing organizes a movie night in town; it’s a blast!")
  • Informing new employees of social norms within the organization ("This company is pretty environmentally conscious, so be sure to use the recycle bins throughout the office.")
  • Being there as a sounding board when a coworker needs to talk about a workplace issue that he is struggling with ("I know you're really upset with Brad about the new attendance policy he just announced…")
  • We hardly think of these examples as gossip.  And yet…they are about other people. They spread information. We don't think of these statements as gossip because they are fundamentally different at the core: they mean to help, not harm.

Words to the Wise: Be Intentional and Choose Wisely

Now, you might be thinking: "Where's the line? I can't go around the office with my lips completely sealed, just to be safe. I grab lunch with people I work with, and of course we talk." Yes…and talk travels on invisible feet. Like the old game of 'Telephone,' it can arrive at its next stop distorted, contrived, enhanced or utterly fabricated, making the rounds without the slightest fanning of the flames on your part.

So what to do? How to ensure that the talk you talk is helpful, not harmful? That the gossip you share means to help, not harm, and is at no one's expense? Consider these six strategies:

  • 1.  Check your intentions: Is what I am about to share fundamentally helpful, or potentially harmful?
  • 2.  Maintain confidences: This includes business information as well as personal information that others may have confided in you.
  • 3.  Don't talk about leadership: This will reflect badly on your judgment. Go directly to leadership with your concerns.
  • 4.  Stay positive: Exercise personal leadership by setting a MAGIC, not tragic tone in your interactions.
  • 5.  Think before you speak:  Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas, suggests using the 'boardroom gauge.' Ask yourself, "Could I say it in the boardroom?" If not, think very carefully before making or passing along remarks that could backfire.
  • 6.  Set your own boundaries and respect those of others: Consider just how much you want to 'share' with your co-workers and how much you really need to know about them.
Call it gossip, or just plain 'talk.' Either way, it can be harmful or helpful.  It can create an impression that is positive or negative. It can create relationships that are supportive or cut throat. Our workplace culture is a reflection of our intentions and the words we choose.

How do you choose?

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.