Kate was a senior teller at a branch of a large Canadian bank in Manitoba. She had enjoyed her job and her relationships with the other tellers – until recently. A new teller, Joan, had been transferred to Kate’s location from another branch. At first, Joan seemed friendly and easy to get to know. However, Joan soon began making critical comments about the supervisor to other tellers, including Kate. She added several of the part-time tellers to her “hit list” and finally turned her attention to some members of Kate’s team. Joan gossiped about another teller’s lack of education, confiding, “She says she finished college but she didn’t.” Another target was the supervisor’s children. “No wonder her son isn’t getting good grades. She’s never home,” opined Joan. Then there was a teller’s wardrobe, which got this assessment: “I couldn’t believe she’d wear that to work and the supervisor let her.”
Kate grew uncomfortable listening to Joan’s negative comments. She dreaded going into work. She tried to avoid Joan. She worried that the other tellers thought she was agreeing with Joan and that she enjoyed the sniping. Most of all, she didn’t know how to tell Joan to stop, fearing she’d be Joan’s next target.
Office gossip is a common problem. It takes a toll on staff morale and creates a divisive and fearful atmosphere. Work gossip might seem like a minor issue, but when unchecked, it fuels anger and resentment. People who feel backstabbed may retaliate, creating a vicious cycle of gossip and counter-gossip. Productivity slows and the workplace becomes tense and distrustful.
The negative remarks do not have to be false to qualify as gossip. If discussing another is part of a plan to speak directly to that person at a later date, that’s something different. Gossip is meant to sully the reputation of another. For example, “I’m worried about Parker’s drinking – do you think I should try to talk to him?” is different from, “Parker’s drunk all the time and I even heard he’s gone and gotten his licence suspended”.
In our practice, we have noted that office gossips are often competitive people who constantly compare themselves to others. They can be male or female and some – but not all – may have low self-esteem. The office gossip views people as either inferior or superior to them. Once someone is identified as superior, whether through a better position, wardrobe or popularity within the office, the gossip will find something to criticize.
The criticism will turn positive qualities into negative ones. For example, if the target has a good position at the company, the gossip will highlight how the job causes him to neglect his family.
Gossipy co-workers tend to nurture a sense of entitlement. They believe they deserve better treatment than others, since others are inferior to them. The gossip believes he or she is “owed” special treatment and can become angry or vindictive if thwarted. Gossips relish other people’s misfortune since it bolsters their sense of superiority and entitlement. Many are envious, judgmental and harshly critical even though they may have achieved much themselves.
Gossiping can be a highly destructive and toxic behaviour. However, it can be checked. Here are some techniques:
Gossips Talk About Everyone
Many people, including the bank teller Kate, believe that if they go along with a gossip, they prevent themselves from becoming targets. This is not true. Gossips are not loyal. Their motivation is to reduce the discomfort they feel when their sense of superiority slips. If gossiping about you is a means to this end, the gossip will use it.
Understanding that tolerating gossip (or even joining in) will not prevent you from becoming a victim is important in dealing with it.
Gossips Talk About Everyone To Anyone
Remember that gossips are well-known in the office for their behaviour. Everyone at work can identify the office gossip. The idea that by hearing gossip, you agree with it, may not be true. To guard against this perception (gossips need others to believe that people agree with them), be sure to have positive conversations about other people at work, notice good deeds, achievements and congratulate others. Be consistent in sending a positive message. If you are finding consistent enjoyment in listening to gossip, you need to look closely at your own behaviour. If you catch yourself participating, stop.
If you can, refrain from being an audience and avoid gossip sessions. Or, you might try ignoring the behaviour altogether. This might be difficult to do if you work closely with a gossip. If this is the case, turning the gossipy talk around may help. If the gossip says, “Fred was really drunk at the office party.” You can reply, “Fred wouldn’t do that. Oh and by the way, Fred got promoted last week, isn’t that great!” or “Fred’s really a great help to me at crunch time.” Change the subject after that.
Be sure to tell the gossip that you are friends with Fred. This puts her on notice that if she wants to talk about Fred she won’t get the response she needs. The gossip is looking for confirmation that she is superior to Fred through your witnessing her denigration of him. If she knows he’s a friend, she’ll be more likely to avoid Fred as a topic of conversation.
Take It Further
If you find that you are unable to contain the gossip by remaining friendly but disengaged, you might need to talk to your supervisor or manager. The manager may not know the gossip is actively undermining people or may have imagined that the behaviour was inoffensive, even if she’s a target.
Be sure to talk about the toll gossip is taking on office morale. Your manager can set the tone by discussing the issue of staying positive about colleagues, as part of a regular staff meeting. She might say something like: “My goal is to celebrate each other’s achievements here and refrain from making negative comments about others perceived shortcomings. However, I have become concerned lately that our unit may be falling short of this ideal. I’d like it if we stay positive with each other and about each other. If this becomes difficult, I’d like to hear about what’s going on.”
The manager may note that talking behind people’s backs can be destructive and that if anyone in the office is feeling uncomfortable about that kind of talk, she’d like to hear from them.
When Kate told her manager about the problem, the supervisor spoke to the staff as a whole and then spoke to the gossip in private. She told the gossip that her contribution is valued but that she is serious about wanting to raise the conversation level in the office and keep it positive. Jane asked for a transfer from the branch shortly after this talk and things returned to normal at Kate’s site.
Talking behind people’s backs at work is a damaging behaviour and ending gossiping is everyone’s responsibility. Notice if you’ve become an unwitting audience and bow out.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.