Most of us have been taught that office gossip breeds distrust and contempt among co-workers, lowers morale and productivity, and may even be hurtful and damaging.
But some experts say these informal exchanges of information actually help us connect with colleagues, and that gossip is an important part of life, not just office culture.
“We learn who we are through what people say to us and about us,” says Dr. Kathleen Kelley Reardon in this Harvard Business Review article.
Dr. Reardon is Professor Emerita of Management and Organization in the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and author of Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation, The Skilled Negotiator and The Secret Handshake.
“Research shows that everyone participates in all kinds of gossip: positive, neutral, and negative,” according to Joe Labianca, Gatton Chair in Management and Director of the Executive MBA Program at University of Kentucky. He goes on to say that if you have a general rule about steering clear of office scuttlebutt you might be missing out. “You’re going to dismiss all kinds of information that could be useful to you, your career, and your work.”
“It builds a bond because people think you trust them to share sensitive information,” says Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. "Information is power."
Of course there is a difference between harmless chatter and harmful accusation.The United States Code is a consolidation and codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States. It defines defamation as false information which "injures" another person, and it considers three types:
- You were aware that the information was untrue.
- You had reason to believe that the information could be untrue, yet you did not bother to thoroughly check.
- The information was of such a broad, generalized nature that it simply could not be true.
Differentiate between positive and negative
How do you rise above the bad stuff and use office gossip to your advantage?
“Once you find yourself listening to comments about someone’s family or personal life, you’ve crossed the line,” Dr. Reardon says to HBR.
However, according to research, and the article, negative gossip is far more rare than we think.
“Most of what we call gossip is usually positive or neutral,” says Labianca, and "that kind can be quite useful to listen to and pass on."
What you say reflects back on you
Before you become a source of office gossip, particularly of the negative kind, the experts caution that it can affect what others think of you. “You want to think about what you’re passing on. The person receiving that information is going to use it to evaluate your character,” says Hill.
Consider how and where you do it
Because your professional reputation is at stake, no small thing for sure, be careful not only about what you share, but how and where and with whom.
We now are all quite aware that email correspondence is neither unreadable or private, so gossiping via email puts a person particularly at risk.
Doing it in front of your boss can also be perilous.
“Gossiping makes you more influential amongst your peers but it can also get you more negative performance ratings from managers if you’re seen as threatening,” Labianca says.
He adds that we can all "participate" without actually contributing, by simply listening to what others are saying and nodding our heads, or giving simple responses such as “I didn’t know that.”
Office politics can be a minefield in all sorts of ways, and failure to navigate them successfully can have negative consequences. That is true of this subject, as one person's "gossip" is another one's "information sharing."
So the experts recommend practicing discretion, earning your co-workers trust, and noting the distinction between a discreet conversation with a trusted colleague and friend after hours away from the workplace, and talking to anyone who will listen around the proverbial water cooler.