It’s inevitable that employees who spend the majority of their time together talk amongst themselves—and most of the time, that’s a good thing; building strong personal relationships can lead to more effective teamwork. Some gossip can even be a good thing if it’s positive and builds camaraderie, such as sharing positive (non-confidential) news such as an engagement or promotion.
Negative office gossip, on the other hand, may appear harmless at first, but can erode trust over time, foster a divided and “cliquey” workplace, and even cause employees to leave the company in order to escape the toxic environment. Regardless of whether you manage others and are concerned about stopping gossip amongst your team, or you’re a team member sometimes brought into the gossip yourself, here are some strategies for stopping the rumor mill before it starts turning.
Employees of all levels—yourself included—are subject to the temptation to gossip, so it’s important not to assume that you and your colleagues are above it, no matter how senior you are. Airing your frustrations or passing along a new nugget of information can feel good in the moment—but even if it’s to a coworker on an entirely different team, there’s always a chance it could get back to your direct reports, colleagues, or manager, setting a poor example and giving others a free pass to do the same.
Save your own venting for when you get home, which can also help to put things into context. If you need to talk about it during the day, leave the office and call a friend, or send them a text asking for their thoughts. When you cool off and explain the situation to a friend or family member, it may seem less extreme than when you were in the moment. This isn’t to say you should avoid difficult situations at work, but rather that it’s important to first determine whether something is truly a problem that needs addressing before you start complaining about it to other people. If there’s no action to be taken, you probably shouldn’t be talking about it in the first place.
In addition, make a habit of disengaging when someone else tries to initiate gossip. People who spread rumors generally do so because it boosts their self-confidence to know things before others—but if you deflect by changing the subject, they won’t get the positive reinforcement that comes from most people’s reaction to juicy news.
For one-off offenses, it’s generally better to change the topic and move on rather than to make a bigger deal of something small. But if someone on your team is repeatedly spreading rumors, it may be worth bringing it up in the appropriate setting.
If the offender is another team member, consider flagging the issue to your manager. Be careful not to position it as gossip about the gossip (“I just can’t believe how much Robby seems to hate the ____ team”), and rather focus on how it’s damaging to you, your team, and/or the broader organization. If you don’t think it’s causing any harm, it might not actually be negative gossip—in which case you may not need to involve someone more senior.
If you are the manager and notice someone on your team always seems to be spreading rumors (or perhaps another team member raised it to you), it may be time to take them aside to understand the cause of this behavior. Listen to their side of the story, taking particular interest in the underlying emotions and motivators in their explanation—are there broader issues at the company that he or she is taking out on an individual? Perhaps they’re bored with their work and looking for ways to stay entertained? Whatever the case, make it clear that gossip isn’t tolerated, show that you understand why it’s become a habit (even if you don’t agree with it), and help them to come up with a plan to avoid falling into negative gossip cycles going forward.