As long as you’re in any setting that contains an element of human interaction, you have probably been subjected, or subjected someone else to this dynamic.
And while some people are immune to gossip, there are settings where it can be quite insidious and do more harm than good - one of this is the office environment.
According to GrowBiz, a media and custom content company for small businesses, some amount of workplace gossip is healthy and shows camaraderie within and between teams.
However, GrowBiz also notes that if the grapevine is starting to cause demoralisation, cause negative workplace attitudes or hurt someone’s feelings, the line has been crossed.
If yours is one of those workplaces where the grapevine is so active that it even supersedes official communication channels, how do you handle participating or being the subject of gossip?
Gossip or not?
But first, what is gossip? Does it only apply to slander and malicious comments or does it also include conversations that contain truth?
There is no universal definition of gossip. However, there are certain elements that clue you in to the fact that what you are hearing or participating in is gossip.
For starters, it needs to be happening in circles where the subject (if an individual) or its representative (if an institution) is not present.
If the conversation is designed to cause undue anxiety, create a scenario where people have to take sides, if it borders on harassment or threatens someone’s safety then it is not just gossip, but harmful gossip.
Let’s face it, if you are the subject of gossip it is likely that you will be among one of the last people to find out unless someone opens up to you and tells you what is transpiring. Say you were recently promoted.
One of your colleagues, as it inevitably happens, feels that they or someone they know was more deserving of the appointment and they start to spread rumours of favouritism.
The effects of this are not just that there will be whispers that stop when you walk into a room.
It will also cause your new team to feel justified in not following you as a leader or recognising your authority.
In fact, because of peer pressure in the workplace it could go as far as your team members openly defying you to endear themselves to their friends and to express their dissatisfaction.
However, because of your new position of authority, it is improbable that your colleagues will let you in on the grapevine talk. It is different if you have close acquaintances who have your best interests at heart, and with whom you have a mutual looking-out-for-each-other relationship.
These kinds of connections take time to build and to create loyalty so start building a close team around you - preferably not with people from your team with who there may be competition on the future - who can be your sounding board, but who can also bring to your attention things that could potentially hurt your reputation.
Don’t get a reputation
If you are one of the people who tends to be in the centre of rumours or gossip, it alienates people who might want to be in your corner - after all if you have been heard to badmouth other people, it is harder to take the high moral ground.
If you can, stop gossip and rumour mongering by explaining the negative ramifications to the person who brings you the ‘news’. If you cannot shut the person down, remove yourself from the conversation.
If the behaviour is insidious, speak to the HR department on what company policy says about what is going on. Model the right behaviour as much as possible, especially if you are heading a team.
Are you the victim of gossip?
If you can’t address the specific people spreading rumours, you may think the next best thing is to make vague remarks or send emails copying ‘all’ and issuing threats to the people subjecting you to gossip. Don’t.
It will only fuel more speculation, guesswork and rumours. Use a mediator such as HR to confront the perpetrators if you know who they are.
Do not resort to passive aggressive tactics such as fighting gossip with gossip. If it ever gets to the attention of your boss, you cannot defend yourself if you resorted to the same underhanded tactics - instead, take the high road at all times, however much it hurts.
As hard as it may be, use the gossip to identify whether you have blind spots in terms of how you are perceived in the workplace and whether you can use it as an opportunity for growth.